EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP – Seventeen-year-old Maria Herouvis of Linwood always had an interest in law enforcement, but it wasn’t until she attended the funeral of her uncle, New Jersey State Trooper Anthony R. Fotiou, who died in 2011, that she could envision herself in its ranks.

“They all came together as a family to honor him,” Herouvis said of the bond law enforcement officers have with one another. “There were members of the Coast Guard there, the state police, the military. It really inspired me.”

So she took the first step toward her goal in 2015 by joining the Egg Harbor Township Law Enforcement Explorer Post 94.

One of the most established of its kind for the region, the post just marked its 35th anniversary with a semi-annual trip to Arizona for the 2016 National Law Enforcement Exploring Conference, where members enjoyed a week of team and individual competitions, seminars, demonstrations, exhibits, recreation and fun.

Part of a national network of similar organizations, Egg Harbor Township’s Explorers post is a free youth program sponsored by the township police department, with assistance and support from several other local agencies, said Egg Harbor Township Police Officer Joseph Griffiths, the program’s leader.

The post, which meets weekly mostly at the Egg Harbor Township Police Department, includes mentoring, education and leadership training with fun-filled, hands-on activities that promote the growth and development of young minds. Guest speakers, field trips and social outings are also a part of the activities.

The leadership component offered by the Explorers suited Herouvis just right.

Now a senior at Mainland Regional High School, she was quickly promoted through the ranks to become a sergeant, one of two commanding officers.

She now plans to start college at Atlantic Cape Community College so she can complete the Explorer program, which is offered to age 20. Then, she will transfer to Stockton University to obtain a criminal justice degree, with the goal of becoming a member of the Egg Harbor Township Police Department.

The determination, poise and discipline she is learning through the post will serve her well in any job, but she said the particular policing skills they teach will definitely put her a step ahead of other police academy cadets when she’s old enough to enroll.

From learning handcuffing skills and how to respond to domestic conflict calls to doing ride-alongs and traffic accident response, the Explorers are learning real world skills that can be immediately implemented if they are hired as police officers.

While Herouvis has her mind set on one day becoming an officer, a large number of the post’s members don’t want pursue that path, said Griffiths, who also participated in the program as a teenager.

For those participants, it can still provide a confidence boost, discipline and community service hours that are desired on college applications.

Approximately 40 former Explorers gone onto careers in law enforcement, with many more entering other fields, he said.

“All of them, however, attribute the time they spent in the program as helping them learn to be productive citizens,” Griffiths said.

Darren Aberman, an officer with the Atlantic County Sheriff’s Department who assists the program, said the hands-on activities are designed to help the young adults become better decision makers.

He said members like Herouvis provide peer leadership as well.

“She is very good with the other Explorers. She has a positive influence on them and they look up to her for guidance,” Aberman said.

Herouvis said the leadership skills she has acquired have already served her well, as some of her peers criticize her participation.

She’s said she has been called “pig,” the common slang word for police officer, or her peers shout out “twelve’s here,” when she approaches, which is something that is said when the cops are spotted approaching the scene of some illegal activity.

But she doesn’t let it bother her.

“I know that one day they are going to be in need, and they will call us to help, not a drug dealer,” she said, adding that many of her friends are supportive and actually jealous that she was able to find her passion before even graduating from high school.

Griffiths said enrollment is ongoing.  

New members must have graduated eighth grade, must between 14 and 20 years old and be willing to attend regular meetings and community assignments. Members do not need to live in Egg Harbor Township to join.

Go online to http://post94.webs.com, on Facebook at Egg Harbor Township Law Enforcement Explorer Post 94 or email Officer Griffiths at jgriffiths@ehtpd.com.

Email Laura at laura.stetser@catamaranmedia.com. Call her at 609-601-5194. Follow her on social media @EHTCurrent @LauraStetser and @TheMomsBeat.