BY DIANE DIMOND
Elegantly simple ideas are often the best. And here’s a great example, brought to you by the folks at Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
Following a spate of police shootings of unarmed civilians and several chilling assassinations of on-duty officers, no one can deny there is major tension in cities across the nation. How do we ease the built-up anxiety and pressure among citizens and those who are supposed to protect them? Those involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters, the nation’s oldest mentoring organization, decided they wanted to be part of the solution.
Their plan was simple: match law enforcement officers with youngsters in at-risk communities.
Turning to some of the existing Big Brothers, who just happened to be police officers, they devised a nationwide program called Bigs in Blue. The idea is to enlist many more men and women who wear a badge to join the effort to turn around inner-city attitudes.
As BBBS President Pam Iorio put it, “The only way we are going to understand one another better on any level, whether it’s policing, community or any other divide that we see in this country is through the power of a one-to-one relationship.”
No single program will turn around negative opinions of police overnight. As one principal at a participating school in Philadelphia put it, kids often see police as the bad guy. “Quite often our children have seen parents being arrested by police,” said Principal Stefan Feaster-Eberhardt. “Quite often there are police in their communities and it’s always something negative.”
The program was modeled after the efforts of a group of volunteer officers in Roanoke, Virginia. NBC News recently highlighted one of them, Detective Ryan Brady, who has mentored 9-year-old Robert for two years. The detective is a 28-year-old white man. Little Brother Robert is African-American. BBBS reports that when the group of uniformed officers first walked into Highland Park Elementary, the kids shied away.
“They were actually a little fearful,” Ryan said. “Above all else, we want(ed) the kids to know we’re a safe place.”
The children’s trust was slow to come, but after the officers kept returning week after week, working with the youngsters one-on-one and engaging in group activities, real friendships developed.
Detective Brady fills the gap for Robert’s hardworking single mother who has four other children to care for. She is terrific, but a boy needs a positive male role model. Ryan helps Robert with his homework and plays sports with him, and he made sure he got to go to summer baseball camp and introduced him to his law enforcement colleagues.
Recently, when an electrical fire occurred in the detective’s home, destroying everything and taking the life of his beloved dog, Robert was worried sick for his Big Brother. Displaying compassion, which some adults lack, the boy urged his mom to call their BBBS liaison immediately and see what they could do to help. It was a real-life lesson in brotherhood, of friends supporting each other in both good times and bad.
This year, Robert’s class discussed careers. When his teacher asked the students, “What do police officers do?” and one of the kids answered, “shoot people,” Robert said he had to speak up.
“That’s not true,” the boy told his classmates. “My Big Brother is a police officer and he doesn’t shoot people.” Then he told them all about Detective Brady.
When the band of uniformed officers visits the neighborhood, the kids are excited. They shout hello and boast to others that they know the officers. Detective Ryan says that the program helps more than just the children. It feeds the souls of those who walk a beat or patrol a troubled neighborhood.
“When you’re a police officer, a lot of times, you deal with the one percent of people who are negative. You can get jaded,” Brady said. “(Ninety-nine) percent of our interactions are with that one percent. That’s why I wanted to do this. Being in the neighborhood with the kids, you get to see how good people are.”
What does Robert say about being matched with a police officer? “I think it’s good because you get somebody that really, like, knows you and gets along with you very well, so if you’re in trouble, you have somebody to go to,” he said.
Putting kids together with cops to build friendships: So simple, so effective.
The Big Brother Big Sister organization says that some version of the Bigs in Blue program is up and running in 12 cities. It hopes to take the program to every major metropolitan area, as soon as possible.
That takes money, of course. If you’re looking to honor a worthy group with an end-of-the-year donation, I hope you consider supporting Bigs in Blue.
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email [email protected]