When Barbara Kaminska first told people she wanted to be a police officer back in the third grade, she was met with mixed reactions. Many of her friends and teachers thought she was only going through a phase, and some told her that being a police officer was “a man’s job.”
But after working as a counselor at the Princeton Youth Police Academy for the past three years, she proved that her aspiration was more than just a phase. Her involvement with the program would also inspire her to create a group that addresses two of her desires — to change the way people in her community interact with police officers and to create a space to discuss difficult topics teens struggle with in her community.
“I’ve wanted to be a police officer the majority of my life, and whenever I told people that I wanted to do something about law enforcement, they’d always be like ‘You’re a girl, you shouldn’t do that,’ or ‘You should reconsider’,’” she said. “They think of police officers as people that you can’t connect with. I don’t think there’s enough communication between the two – the police and the community.”
A junior at Princeton High School, Kaminska is the founder of Speak Out, Princeton Teens!, a program that seeks to create a safe environment for teens to talk about tough issues like bullying and mental health. Kaminska also hopes the program will improve the relationship between teens and the Princeton Police.
Kaminska, who was bullied in middle school, said Princeton High School is very rigorous in terms of academics and many of the students are experiencing some sort of stress.
“If students don’t realize they are stressed, it can become so big that it can lead to other things such as anxiety and depression,” she said. “Freshman or sophomore year I had very bad stress that also led to anxiety and depression. Outside of school, people I talked to were very open about sharing stories that were very similar to mine, and it’s important that more students can experience that feeling of knowing they are not alone.”
Kaminska has reached out to the founders of programs like Attitudes in Reverse, a mental health and suicide prevention program, to help make mental health awareness and suicide prevention priorities in her program, which is open to both middle school and high school students in the Princeton area. She says there is a need for more discussionsabout mental health in her own school, especially after freshman Owen Bardzilowski, her friend and classmate, committed suicide this past September.
Although Kaminska struggled to get the program started last spring, she found support and learned leadership skills from officers in the Princeton Youth Police Academy this past summer, she said. Since
then, she has received support and feedback in the Princeton community from counselors, students in her school wanting to take on leadership roles, and others.
A coach in Princeton Special Sports and a student leader at her church’s confirmation group, Kaminska has a history of working with young students and recognizes the need to give them a voice in the community.
“It’s important that teenagers know that even if they’re 13, 14, 15 or however old they are, they still have a voice and it’s important for them to share it,” said Kaminska. “People just need to know that you can make progress even as a teen – you don’t have to wait to be an adult to try to complete a goal or make a change, even if it might be small-scale for now.”