Helping Youth - The Chicago Way
By Leo Krajewski, TDY to BuNews Published: December 9, 2021
Picture courtesy of BuNews
“SA Sarah Henkelmann receives the William H. Webster award. She is pictured with
Director Wray and former Director Webster.
The Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI honored Special Agent Sarah
Henkelmann with the 2021 William H. Webster Award for exemplary public or
humanitarian service in October. Henkelmann's efforts "have saved or helped
launch lives of consequence" for hundreds of at-risk teens, said former FBI
Director William Webster, the award's namesake.
Henkelmann's award is 10 years in the making.
How It Started
"It just sucked me in."
That was Henkelmann's first reaction to the idea of the Chicago Division
developing a chapter of the FBI Explorers, a program for disadvantaged teens
and young adults to learn about law enforcement and careers with the FBI.
There was no curriculum, no budget - just a sincere desire to help.
"I have two wonderful kids who have been very blessed to be born in the right
family and have an education and a safe home," said Special Agent Vick
Lombardo, who recruited Henkelmann. "I felt obligated to help out the kids who
didn't have those blessings on the front end."
Henkelmann joined the effort and quickly created a curriculum. Someone
suggested using PowerPoint presentations. Henkelmann, who worked with
Native American youth after college, thought otherwise.
Amanda Bolden poses with her graduation certificate.
"Wow, I will be bored. These kids will be hating their life if we do something like
this," she said.
Using Quantico for inspiration, Henkelmann created a mini-FBI Academy
experience in which students investigated a single case, from complaint call to
arrest. She recruited experts to discuss topics including bomb tech and
undercover work, created surveillance scenarios and evidence response
operations, anything to put the students in the role of investigators.
Lombardo handled the administrative matters of recruitment and fundraising,
successfully converting the program into a 501 (c)3 organization. The finished
product is a program that meets every other week for two hours over eight
months. There's also a parent orientation and graduation ceremony.
But that's all window dressing for the program's real goals.
"We focus on helping these children become good adults," Henkelmann said.
"The vision is to integrate teaching about the FBI and learning how to build
rapport, ask questions and actively listen."
The program - staffed by Chicago Division employees who volunteer afterhours
and off the clock - is called the Edwin C. Shanahan Chicago FBI
Explorers, Post 1920. Shanahan, who was assigned to Chicago, was the first
agent killed in the line of duty in 1925.
The team first recruited students from a prep school located just a five-minute
walk from the field office. Students loved the program and over the years,
recruitment spread to other schools in the Chicago area, bringing in more teens
with different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Nearly 90 applications are received every year, and fewer than 40 students are
selected. Each year, three graduates are chosen to return to serve as mentors
to the new class of students.
Samantha Cohen first learned about the Explorers program from her son,
Oliver. He kept telling her about the FBI agents who visited his school. He wanted to join.
"He just was so intense about it. He just thought it was so impressive,"
Samantha said. Oliver knew all the deadlines and convinced his mom to let him
join. Samantha reluctantly agreed.
"We were sort of naive about the scope of what the FBI works on," she said.
She feared Oliver would pursue a law enforcement career, risking his life and
confronting criminals. But as she learned about more about the FBI through a
parent orientation and her son's homework assignments (yes, Henkelmann
assigned homework), her mindset changed.
"It wasn't what you might think of in a movie scene. It was really more forensic,
analytical, working toward helping and solving crimes," Cohen said. "Even if he
did end up taking a somewhat risky job as an adult, that would be okay because
we felt that the positives outweighed it."
Oliver's excitement rubbed off on his younger brother, Julian, who joined the
Explorers when he was a high school junior. He particularly enjoyed
presentations on the Boston Marathon Bombing response and behavioral
analysis. After graduating from the program, Julian was chosen to return as a
mentor to the class of new students.
"I think the Explorers has done a great job teaching about the FBI and giving us
so many skills that we can draw on, in all aspects of our lives," Julian said.
In one case, the Explorers experience led to an FBI internship.
Alumna Amanda Bolden described herself as shy, someone who sat quietly
during sessions. "When we got to the end, I kind of started stepping up more,"
she said, "not trying to be a leader, but [I] just unintentionally became like a
She was accepted into the FBI's Honors Internship Program and is assigned to
the Cincinnati Division.
"She's a very good leader, and to see her grow in the program, it was really
good," said Susana Herrera, an administrative operations manager and longtime
Explorers volunteer. Herrera grew up in a gang-ridden neighborhood in
Chicago and was the first in her family to graduate from college.
She wished something like the FBI Explorers existed when she was young.
"When I heard about the program, and it was targeting high school students,
that was my way to reach out to them but to give back, too."
Lombardo, who partnered with Henkelmann to run the program, has seen
several positive transformations.
Chicago employees helped limit the influence of gangs and became aware of
students who lived in abusive homes and helped them find a safe environment.
In one case, Lombardo noticed a student's off-behavior and learned he was
contemplating suicide. The team intervened to get him help. They spoke to the
teen and his mother and learned that he was bullied in school.
"I still hear from his mom. He's in his first year of college and he's doing well.
He's stable and he's happy," Lombardo said.
After nine years in the program, Henkelmann is turning the reins over to a new
batch of volunteers. The time commitment is significant, but she believes it
would be a real benefit to add more FBI Explorers programs. Only two exist _
in Chicago and the New York Office.
"I think if other divisions were willing to look into this a little bit, it would really
make an impact on their community, on our future recruiting efforts and how
the public sees the Bureau," she said.
Henkelmann started an Explorers alumni program before leaving Chicago for an
l8-month TDY to FBI Headquarters. The Chicago chapter has resulted in three
students becoming FBI interns and countless students planning for future
Bureau careers. And that's just who they know about.
"When you're putting together something from scratch, you have no idea if
anybody's going to enjoy it, if it's going to be the worst, if it'll go on,"
"I could never have predicted from the beginning starting this that we would get
to see such great things come out of it. There are probably so many other
things we don't know about, but we've been really excited about the ones we do
If you're interested in starting an FBI Explorers program in your division or
would like to learn more about the Chicago Division's chapter, email Sarah
Henkelmann, [email protected].
If you have comments or questions, contact the BUNEWSEditor.
This page was last modified on Thursday, December 09, 2021 by SCOTT, TIFFANY D. (OPA) (CON)