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Homeless 12-year-old finds hope, success after encounter with San Diego officer

Left alone all day in Starbucks while his mother tried to earned money, Alejandro Matias Nazario’s life was transformed after Officer John Larson intervened

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Photo/Escondido Police Department

By Diane Bell
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — Alejandro Matias Nazario is a lucky guy.

That’s a surprising adjective to use in describing a homeless 12-year-old who was hanging out at a Starbucks and Jack in the Box in Escondido.

He was a quiet child who tried not to attract attention. But a couple of Starbucks employees took notice. They informed Escondido Police Officer John Larson, who frequently stopped by for coffee.

The boy stayed at Starbucks until it closed, then he crossed the street and took refuge at the Jack in the Box, which stayed open into the early morning hours. Larson started watching for him and noticed the same pattern.

It was about a week before Larson, working the graveyard shift, caught up with the elusive youngster at the Jack in the Box about midnight and talked to him.

This month, five years later, Alejandro recalled that evening.

He explained that his mom left him there in the morning and returned for him in the evening after her work of collecting and recycling cans was done: “What she earned from that day is what we’d have to spend for the whole day.”

If she had a good day, he says, they might stay the night in a budget hotel, but about 90 percent of the time they bedded down outside.

His childhood story is sad. His mother was a victim of spousal abuse, which ended up causing a permanent back injury that interfered with her ability to hold a job.

After his dad was arrested for abuse, the downward spiral began. His mother couldn’t pay the bills, lost her apartment, moved to less expensive apartments but couldn’t afford the rent in those. Then they drifted from hotel to hotel, until one day they were homeless.

Officer Larson knew the intersection of West Mission Avenue and North Quince Street was unsafe for an unsupervised kid to spend his time. Finding out that Alejandro had been robbed and his shoes stolen one night, only deepened his resolve to get him into protective custody.

Through Child Welfare Services, Alejandro ended up at the Polinsky Childrens Center, which hooks children up with foster families.

Larson checked back a week later but, due to privacy restrictions, was assured only that Alejandro was safe and being cared for.

“I completely lost contact,” he says.

Meanwhile, Alejandro was placed with a foster family in San Ysidro. A year later, he was invited to move in with a foster family in Vista where he would be closer to his mother. He agreed.

“I was happy to have a place to stay,” he says. “But I was really quiet and didn’t want to form attachments to people because I was afraid of losing them.”

He says his mom was glad to see that he was living well.

Returning to school was challenging after his two-year gap, but Alejandro credits his teachers for not letting him give up. “They kept pushing me forward.”

Over the next five years, Larson often thought of the youngster. “This boy and his story always stuck with me. It definitely pulled on my heart strings.” He wondered if this kid had succeeded or had remained a victim.

It wasn’t until the Escondido Police Department was hosting the kids’ Shop with a Cop event last December that he connected with its coordinator and mentioned the incident of five years earlier.

The coordinator didn’t know Alejandro Nazario but offered to reach out to her friends and contacts in the child welfare system.

When she finally located Alejandro, it was a week before his graduation from Rancho Buena Vista High School in Vista. She gave Larson the information.

“I raced over to the high school and talked to his counselor,” Larson says. He asked the counselor to let Alejandro know he wanted to say hello.

“I was really surprised when my counselor called and told me about him. I didn’t know he would have wanted to be in contact with me,” Alejandro says. “I felt pretty happy that I had someone who really cared for me.”

Nevertheless, Alejandro admits he felt nervous because they hadn’t seen each other for five years.

The counselor called Larson an hour later. “He is excited,” she reported. “Come back tomorrow and have lunch with him.”

Armed with cheeseburgers, Larson did just that. “We gave each other a hug. He was really happy and had a really big smile. ... It felt surreal.”

They chatted. Then came a special invitation. Would the officer attend his high school graduation?

But, of course. That’s what led to a photo of a smiling cop and a beaming kid in red commencement robe and purple lei being posted on the Escondido police Facebook page.

“I’m very proud of him and very happy,” Larson says. Despite not attending school from age 10 to 12, Alejandro was graduating on time and with excellent grades.

Larson takes no credit for turning the youngster’s life around, saying it was all Alejandro’s doing. “He didn’t use his past as an excuse not to succeed.”

Alejandro is now working at a Vista restaurant and is heading to MiraCosta College this fall to pursue a degree in graphic design. He would like to create his own clothing line some day.

I asked Alejandro what he thought he would be doing today if he hadn’t met Officer Larson that night.

“I think I would still be homeless, either helping my mom or maybe doing illegal stuff because there was a high crime rate where I was living,” he says.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.