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When it comes to leadership training, community service and instilling confidence in young people, the Civil Air Patrol — the official auxiliary of the United States Air Force — soars.

According to Maj. Barb Buckner, commander of Thunder Composite Squadron IL-317 in Lansing, CAP is a volunteer organization that follows the same structure as the Air Force. It meets on Wednesdays at Heritage Middle School 19250 Burnham Ave., Lansing. Those who participate are ages 12 to 21.

CAP is divided into three “missions”: Aerospace education, emergency services, and cadet programs. “We build upon each of these with the projects and activities that we participate in,” Buckner said.

The aerospace education mission teaches basic aviation; science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM topics; astronomy; and basic flight instruction.As part of it, cadets have orientation flights in Cessna aircraft, even taking the controls for a while.

“The chance to fly an airplane with the supervision of a pilot is a big draw for the kids,” Buckner said.

Real missions, real experience

Maj. Rick Zalud, Thunder Composite Squadron IL-317 deputy commander for cadets, said that for the emergency services mission, CAP cadets participate in real missions under Air Force direction.

“We do 90 percent of all search-and-rescue missions with the USAF, using its equipment. This includes more than half of the missions in Illinois, as well as some in Indiana," he said.

Zalud said cadets and adult members are trained in first aid/CPR, compass reading, radio communications and more in preparation for search and rescue missions.

Thunder teams have helped look for missing people and for aircraft that don't arrive at their destination when expected. They’ve found signals from Emergency Locator Transmitters and assisted in aerial photos of tornado and flooding damage.

“Search-and-rescue missions really open up the cadets’ eyes,” Buckner said.

"Missions may include sandbagging for flooding, delivering supplies to victims after a hurricane, clean-up after a tornado, and assistance in other natural disasters,” Zalud said.

“The kids take a great deal of pride in their work, and when they’re in uniform, they’re considered airmen in the USAF. The USAF actually evaluates us as a group.”

The purpose of the Cadet Program is twofold: to train today’s youth to be tomorrow’s leaders and introduce them to careers in aviation.

Buckner said that as cadets advance, they’re given leadership roles to teach them responsibility, project management, public speaking, and problem-solving.

“Many of our cadets have told us that when they got their first job, they were fast-tracked into a team leader role because of what they learned with us,” she said, beaming.

Cadet 2nd Lt. Lucas Vanderwoude, of Lansing, is one example. “When he interviewed for his first job, CAP helped him write his resume and helped him to be polished," Buckner said. “Because of this, he was offered more money and a higher position.”

Cadets laud the training, experience they get

Vanderwoude joined CAP almost five years ago when he was in seventh grade at Heritage Middle School, where the squadron holds its Wednesday meetings.

“I saw the kids in the hallway wearing the uniforms, and I thought it looked cool,” he said.

“I spoke with Mr. Zalud, who is the ‘network guy’ at school and he said I should come to a meeting. I’m now a junior in high school, and I made it up to first in the officer rank, and I’m also the cadet commander of the squadron.”

As such, Vanderwoude said he is to demonstrate the core values of CAP — integrity, excellence, volunteer service and respect.

Cadet Senior Master Sgt. Saylor Santori, of Cedar Lake, a high school sophomore, has been involved with CAP for 2 1/2 years and now is a flight sergeant in charge of new cadets.

“My leaderships skills have grown immensely," she said.

"Being able to go up to a person and have a meaningful conversation about CAP is amazing. When I first joined, I couldn’t go up to anyone. I was very shy.” Santori recently was named public affairs officer for Thunder and will contribute articles to its website.

Focusing on community service, Thunder has visited a nursing home, worked at a food pantry, participated in local parades, and assisted at local events such as the LARC Fish Fry to benefit the developmentally disabled, flight line safety at Gary/Chicago International Airport for the Chicago and Gary air shows, and Lan-Oak Park District Easter Egg Hunt and Halloween Ghostly Games.

They've also posed as “victims” for a Homeland Security Mass Casualty Training event, and volunteered as Color Guard for events such as the Federal Aviation Administration Wings Safety seminars and the Chicago White Sox.

Cadets also participate in an annual competition to detect cyber security threats delivered by the FBI. If they do well, they compete in Washington, D.C.

“Their first year, Thunder was No. 2 in the state and No. 8 in the nation,” Zalud said.

Buckner said that though cadets wear Air Force uniforms and follow its customs and courtesies, the program isn't designed to get them to join the military.

“It’s to build leaders that hopefully will pursue a career in aviation, in one shape or form,” she said. However, some, such as Vanderwoude and Santori, are interested in joining the service, and one of Thunder’s cadets was accepted at the United States Air Force Academy.

Cadets stay with the program, Buckner said, because CAP gives them the opportunity to grow safely.

“We draw them out of their comfort zone, but we work with them and they know the expectations,” she said. “CAP helps kids, particularly those who are introverts or who may need some direction, to become a leader. When they’re with us, they feel safe and confident.”

"In life, kids have the choice of taking a positive or negative path,” Zalud said. “The Civil Air Patrol provides leadership training and guidance, so they can do good.”

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