Many parents have made gun safety and awareness a priority with headlines across the country as well as locally having brought gun safety to the forefront. No one knows that better than FishHawk resident Dennis Bolender, who is offering free gun safety courses for children in the community.
Bolender grew up in St. Petersburg, and after attending St. Pete Junior College, he accepted a position in the St. Petersburg Police Department in 1986. During this time, he met his wife and moved to Southern Hillsborough County. Ten years ago, the Bolenders moved to FishHawk.
“We have five kids—four daughters and one son, who is our youngest,” said Bolender. “Our kids attended Bevis, Randall Middle and four have attended Newsome High (two are there right now).”
Bolender recently retired from the Police Department after 32 years. During his law enforcement career, Bolender served many roles, including field training officer, being part of the Street Narcotics Unit and police motorcycle officer. He was also promoted to sergeant and then lieutenant.
“I became a certified law enforcement instructor early in my career and became a police firearms instructor about 25 years ago,” said Bolender. “I was involved with firearms training for most of my career. I’ve also become a NRA rifle, shotgun, pistol instructor and range officer in the last year. My other certifications are through the FDLE. I’m an assistant Scoutmaster with BSA Troop 79 in Brandon. I like to teach and I love working with kids.”
Unfortunately, throughout the course of his career, Bolender saw too many young deaths due to unsafe gun practices. With a 3-year-old daughter at the time, he researched gun safety courses for other parents with children. The NRA had put together a course called the Eddie Eagle GunSafe® Program for young kids to show them how to respond if they found a gun.
“I started teaching my wife’s students,” said Bolender. “Word got around and I started teaching it at other schools. I did it on my own time, but the department let me do it in uniform.”
Since 1988, the Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program has reached more than 32 million children in all 50 states with the help of more than 26,000 schools, teachers and law enforcement officers. In Florida, over 1.7 million children have received Eddie Eagle’s life-saving message since the program’s inception.
Bolender continued to teach these classes throughout the Tampa Bay area as well as at the Great American Teach-In, at Ruskin Christian School and many local schools.
“I’ve taught it to my own kids and provided the materials to officers in the department who had kids,” said Bolender. “I stopped teaching the class several years ago, but I was prompted to restart it due to the recent tragedies in our neighborhood. It reminded me that this training is still relevant and is needed.”
The Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program has specific programs for pre-K through fourth graders. It provides kids with a scripted response to encountering an unsecured gun: “STOP! DON’T TOUCH! RUN AWAY! TELL A GROWNUP!” There is also an animated video that shows kids encountering an unattended gun and how they respond.
“It’s important to mention that the program is neither pro-gun nor anti-gun,” said Bolender. “Many people have strong feelings on both sides of gun ownership, and this program does not reflect either viewpoint, it is totally neutral. It just gives kids a safe way to handle a dangerous situation.”
Bolender put together his own gun safety lesson program for older kids.
“I talk to the older kids about how a gun actually functions (very basic) so they can understand how dangerous it can be when not handled safely,” said Bolender. “I go into greater detail about where they might encounter a gun, the idea of peer pressure and their responsibility to protect their friends who might have a gun they should not have. I want to emphasize that, when doing these classes with the kids, that no guns or ammunition, real or fake, are utilized or permitted to be present.”
Parents are encouraged to be present for these classes, and in the case of the Eddie Eagle program, the kids leave with a workbook to do with their parents, and a parental gun safety brochure is provided.
Bolender is also available to meet with any adults who have guns, or are considering getting a gun, and talk to them about safe ways to properly secure them. In this case, no children are allowed to be present. Since Bolender offered his free gun safety classes, he has spoken to 26 children.
“One mom took it upon herself to contact her friends and neighbors and host the class at her house. The kids were all from about 4 to 8 years of age,” said Bolender. “All I need is room for the kids to sit down while I present and a DVD player and TV to run the video on. I’m trying to locate a venue locally where I can set up classes for the kids by age. The class only takes about an hour.”
“Please teach your kids about gun safety,” said Bolender. “Even if you do not own a gun, it’s highly likely that they are going into the homes of friends and family who do have guns.”
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