OWATONNA — Steele County Safety Camp celebrated 25 years of informing rising fourth graders about various elements of safety Thursday with tips on everything from fishing, swimming, and boating safety to first aid.

Children were also treated to visits by several impressive vehicles — always a highlight — including a Mayo Clinic ambulance and an Owatonna Fire Department truck, said Matt Oeltjenbruns, a detective with the Owatonna Police Department. Thursday’s activities were centered around Lake Kohlmier, with the action moving to the Steele County Fairgrounds Friday.

On Friday, “we’ll have bicycle safety, which they always seem to enjoy, and we’re bringing back the canine demonstration,” Oeltjenbruns said. Additionally, “firefighters will tear apart a car with the Jaws of Life,” and the plan is to land a helicopter from the state patrol on site, as well.

“We have over 30 volunteers helping out at stations and as counselors,” and that manpower is paramount with nearly 200 Steele County children at safety camp, he said. “We also have lots of sponsors,” which allows each child to receive “an awesome goody bag with coupons for food, a first aid kit, and a flashlight,” among other items, as well as a T-shirt and backpack.

This event has grown significantly since its beginning, which was only one day and served far fewer campers, said Ted Mittelstadt, who has been involved with the camp since its inception. The inaugural camp was held at the then-Willow Creek Intermediate School, but “we wanted to help more kids,” so they expanded to two days and eventually settled on the current format of day one at Lake Kohlmier, because of its water access, then a second day at the Steele County Fairgrounds, which offers shelter in the Four Seasons Centre in the case of inclement weather.

Mittelstadt instructs on firearm safety at the camp, and “I’ve been a shooter all my life,” but he learned early that guns needed to be respected, not toyed with, and he imparts that same message to students at his station, he said. “Basic gun safety rules” can save lives.

His “number one rule” is “keep (the gun) in a safe direction,” he said. “You won’t hurt anyone accidentally or yourself.”

At his station, students shoot rubber band guns at targets, and they wear safety glasses, he said. Though incoming fourth graders may seem young for gun information, “they’re at that age” where relatives might be taking them out shooting, or they could stumble upon weapons inadvertently.

“You read many stories” about gun accidents with children, he said. His station — and the camp in general — “exposes kids to safety issues they might not get otherwise.”

Another of Thursday’s stations was fishing safety, and students were able to dunk lines in the water after a brief introduction from Larry Kriesel. Several found immediate success, too, reeling in sunfish mere minutes after dipping poles into the water.

“We don’t want to swing our fishing pole around, because hooks are very sharp,” advised Kriesel. “The rocks can be very slippery, (so) don’t fall in the water,” either.

Thursday’s group was in some ways similar to the Owatonna High School fishing team in that “we have kids of all different ability levels,” said Kriesel, head coach of that squad. The OHS team, comprised of 45 members, “goes all over the state to fish,” including a tournament at Lake Minnetonka later this week.

Fishing “gets (youth) outside and off the couch,” Kriesel said. It’s simply “a matter of learning how to do it.”

Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan.

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