Call him the camp medicine man, this guy who uses four of his five weeks of vacation to make sure student insect bites, allergies and medical problems are addressed while they enjoy summer programs at Arlington Echo Outdoor Educational Center in Millersville.
But Vernon W. Cooper, who also teaches students about forestry and wildlife, doesn't consider his volunteer work at the camp a sacrifice. In fact, the39-year-old smiles like an overgrown kid in his blue baseball cap and green shorts.
"There's always a need for parent volunteers," he says. "It freesthe staff to be able to do other things."
And his volunteerism doesn't end with schools. He also offers his services as a certified paramedic and fireman in Maryland City each Wednesday. Only as an afterthought does he mention his full-time job as an agronomist and turf specialist for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
This week, Cooper is volunteering at the residential instrumental music camp, which has brought 70 students in grades 5 through 12 to Arlington Echo. Next week, he will be bunking with students again for the week-long chorus camp that is expected to bring out 90 students.
Tucked away behind thickly wooded grounds on Indian Landing Road off Route 178, the educational center operates year round. Students use the facility,owned by the Board of Education, for scienceand environmental lessons as well as specialized camps.
And Cooper is there almost as often as the doors are open.
During the school year, he has served as a wildlife instructor when elementary students are brought in for one-night sleep overs. And at all times, he keeps his medical bag handy for the gamut of major and minor emergencies he has handled, including allergies, food poisoning and chicken pox.
"He originally came to us close to eight years ago as a parent with a child in a kindergarten class at Benfield Elementary," Coordinator of Outdoor Education Rus Heyde said.
Earlier this week, as music students gathered to practice in small groups throughout the Millersville grounds, Cooper sat inside a trailer designated for volunteers, organizing medical records. His laptop computer is filled with records of the medications students brought with them as well as a log of which students he has seen.
Twelve-year-old Josh Davidsburg, a seventh grader at Severna Park Middle, is brought in for a tick bite that he said has begun to swell. Cooper pulls out his medical box and gets to work.
"He's nice to have around,"Josh says about the man placing an ice pack on his leg. "And he sleeps in my cabin."
Another student, who suffers from arthritis, comes in to update Cooper on what physical activities she will be undertaking. And a mother calls to get an update on an eye injury her child received.
Some camp staff members are trained in first aid, Heyde says, but dealing with medical emergencies would mean being pulled away from instruction. Plus, he notes, his volunteerism saves the school system money.
"We will be using more volunteersin the teaching and supervision aspects of the program in order to maintain costs," he says. "Arlington Echo has over 8,000 students going through during the school year, and during that time, we have 1,500parent volunteers."
The camp has only two full-time staff members; other teachers are hired during the summer.
Besides getting the opportunity to spend more time with his two children at the camps, Cooper says he enjoys putting his knowledge to use. In addition to volunteer work at Arlington Echo, he also gives a week to the county's 4-H club camp in Garrett County.
"There's nothing worse than a kid going to camp and getting sick," Cooper says. "We have a kid who came here with an ingrown toenail that had turned purple. By now, if it had not been treated, he would have been hobbling around camp or sent home.
"They had to audition to get here," he explains. "The last thing they want is to be sent home."