The energetic group of more than 50 children, transitional kindergarteners to second-graders from St. Paul’s Catholic School in Mid City LA, gathered on a crisp Tuesday afternoon outside the Target store at the base of Baldwin Hills.
Their day of shopping at the store through a “Heroes & Helpers” program grant had just about wrapped up — each child was paired with a University of Southern California Village community or public safety officer, and, going into the store holding hands, they enjoyed the collaboration on how to spend a $45 gift card and create a safe, meaningful relationship.
But as the children waited for the yellow bus to take them back to campus, they were told by the officers to look up into the sky for a surprise.
The noise of a Los Angeles Police Department helicopter could be heard as it flew closer toward La Cienega Blvd. Now in sight, the chopper dipped, banked toward the store roof and made a swooping pass overhead.
The pilot waved from his window.
The children, still wearing paper deer antlers on their head, cheered and waved back. The chopper circled around once more, to even more glee.
The poignancy of the moment wasn’t lost on St. Paul principal Linda Guzman.
“Usually, an LAPD helicopter overhead, there’s a negative tone, it means outside there’s probably something bad going on, and the children pick up on that,” said Guzman. “This showed a real connection, a time to celebrate, not just have a presence when things may be going wrong. It was really touching to see the kids impressed by that.”
Target’s $3,000 corporate donation for this particular “Heroes & Helpers” community building campaign started with store employee Claudia Montecinos, a St. Paul’s parishioner whose son, Tyler, started this year as a transitional kindergarten student.
She is also involved in the school’s dual language program. Her previous work at the Target in the USC Village area resulted in connections with the local campus police force, and it was natural for her to ask their officers to participate.
She also was appreciative of the helicopter flyover that capped off the field trip.
“I was so grateful for how everything happened; as a first-time partnership, it was so new to everyone,” said Montecinos. “I believe we live in a safe area (near the school). If the police are ever called, they come. The kids know them as people who are important not just for us, but also for the school and the community. They now have a special bond.”
Guzman was pleased how the tone of the event was not about “how a bunch of underprivileged kids were getting something free.” This was more of a reward, she said, for the way they have understood and responded to recent community service projects at St. Paul.
That included canned food and toiletry drives at Thanksgiving and a Mass of thanks for their family and their well-being.
“With this age group, the focus and lessons are about giving to others less fortunate, giving from your heart and not expecting anything in return” said Guzman. “It is how to be a gracious person and grateful when good things happen. We want them to know about how to contribute to society as a Catholic school student — live with compassion, have God in your daily thoughts.
“So this time, the shoe was on the other foot. They were learning how to be thankful when someone was giving to them. How to be respectful when someone shows them a kind deed.
“Having the officers involved reinforces how they are our friends, they are part of our community, they protect us. The officers showing the children such humanity, sharing a positive moment, it was so amazing.”
While the children took home Legos, Barbies, action figures and LOL Surprise! Dolls, the three dozen officers who participated received gifts as well.
“This was such a great goodwill project that teaches everyone the value of working together,” said John Thomas, the executive director and chief of the USC Department of Public Safety. “Too often, young kids may have a perception of police that isn’t positive, based on an experience, a call to their house, their family going through something traumatic.
“We have to be mindful that the kids are always watching us. We have to talk to them, and listen to them, and just be present. They will be at the forefront to building and improving relationships. It has to start early. They have to know we work for them, we serve them, it’s a nurturing relationship that continues through adulthood.”
Thomas, who has 34 years in law enforcement experience, including 21 years with the LAPD, grew up in South Central LA and attended Crenshaw High School. He said he wishes he had programs like “Heroes & Helpers” when he was younger because his perceptions of the police “were not all positive.”
“I remember the police as detached, they didn’t talk to kids, they were to be feared,” said Thomas. “That’s an unfortunate way to grow up. You miss so many opportunities, like this, to make an impact, show positivity and possibly encourage them to get into public service.”
This relationship may just be getting started, said Guzman. From this project, she said officers have volunteered to come and read books with the children to advance literacy programs.
“My prayer was the officers were seen as a positive influence, as support for the kids who can now get used to seeing them,” said Guzman. “Our school is a safe haven for them. If they see an officer come on campus, they shouldn’t be wondering ‘What just happened?’ Nothing’s wrong, they’re just here to check up on you. It’s the perfect way to do more in this setting.”
Tom Hoffarth is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles.
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