Bigs with Badges: Police-student mentorship program exposes kids to LE careers
The program's goal is to expose kids to what a career in law enforcement looks like and what pathways they can take to get there
Reprinted with permission from Behind the Badge
By Cindy Arora
For more than a century, the national nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters of America have teamed up caring adults with kids who need extra guidance. With more than 100 years of experience, the successful program has made its mark on families and youth – all over the world.
In 2018, the local affiliate was approached by the North Orange County Task Force to pilot a program called "Bigs with Badges," starting with Buena Park Cypress Police Departments working with local school districts in the two cities.
The goal? To pair police officers with kids from local schools.
The aspiration? To bridge the gap between kids, families and police officers and to expose kids to what a career in law enforcement looks like and what pathways they can take to get there.
We had a chance to speak with Allison Hata, vice president of communications for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County and the Inland Empire, about the pilot program, how they envision the future of "Bigs with Badges," and how a global pandemic has changed the way mentoring looks.
Behind the Badge: Can you share the goal of Bigs with Badges and how it is different from the typical Big/Little scenario?
Allison Hata: Like all of our programs, Bigs with Badges is focused on building relationships between a mentor and a child. It's that one-on-one connection that is the cornerstone of Big Brothers Big Sisters.
It allows our mentors and youth to create a meaningful bond and, as a result, better understand different perspectives and experiences.
Career readiness is an important component of our program that helps us achieve that goal, and Bigs with Badges has provided a great opportunity for us to expose children to career pathways within law enforcement. Our kids have a chance to see all the different opportunities within the industry because of their mentors and start to visualize themselves in this field of work that didn't seem like a possibility.
Behind the Badge: Since the official launch in 2018, how have the last few years gone with the Bigs with Badges program in place?
Allison Hata: Buena Park Police Department and Buena Park Junior High matches are part of our pilot cohort for Bigs with Badges. We're excited to see some strong relationships built over the last couple years as the program evolved. This year, we're expanding to partner with Anaheim Police Department, matching law enforcement mentors with students from Anaheim High School and Sycamore Junior High.
One of our mentees came to us when he was 12 years old, being raised by a single mom. He didn't have a father figure in his life growing up and his mom wanted him to have a positive male mentor who could help motivate him and model respect and responsibility. His Bigs with Badges mentor helped fill that role for him. He not only had a chance to see his mentor earn a promotion through hard work and years invested in his career, but also took a tour of the department through one of our program sessions. He's interested now in joining the department's Police Explorers program that he learned about from him.
Behind the Badge: Is it difficult to find students who want to be a part of the program? Is it harder when partnering them with law enforcement?
Allison Hata: There is always a demand that we must urgently meet in a normal year, and we've seen a higher inquiry rate from families than ever through this pandemic. The youth we serve live in areas that were the hardest hit. With the onset of COVID-19, their existing challenges are compounded by new ones – mental health struggles as a result of extended isolation, lack of access to WiFi and technology to log on for school, lack of access to opportunities to develop leadership skills and advance on career pathways.
That said, we are still incredibly intentional in how we match youth with mentors.
For Bigs with Badges, we look for youth who have expressed interest in a law enforcement career at our partner schools. It gives our youth and our law enforcement mentors a foundation to build a relationship on, starting with this common interest. Most of the youth we serve are growing up in lower-income neighborhoods and don't have access to opportunities or a role model outside the family who can help them visualize a path to success.
Our law enforcement mentors give youth a glimpse of what their future could look like. What we look for in all volunteers – including the sworn and non-sworn personnel we recruit to be Bigs with Badges mentors –is a desire to get involved with their community and make a difference, one child at a time.
Behind the Badge: How has the program pivoted during COVID in order to still be a resource for students?
Allison Hata: In a typical year, matches would meet at the school once a month for 90-minute mentoring sessions. Our team has a comprehensive curriculum that allows for one-on-one time as well as facilitated group sessions working on relationship building, career exploration and social emotional learning.
With the onset of COVID, we had to reimagine our program. While our curriculum focus remains the same, the program is now virtual. Mentors and mentees now meet once a month for an hour over Zoom, coming together for a group activity first with the whole cohort and then spending time one-on-one in breakout rooms for discussion and reflection. Late last year, we held our first introductory session virtually with a new cohort of Buena Park Police Department mentors and students from Buena Park High School.
As the year ramps up, we'll continue to focus on curriculum that incorporates elements of socioemotional learning, DEI and wellness. One exciting activitiy we have planned is a "Bigs" career panel, where selected PD mentors will have the opportunity to share about their jobs, how they reached this point in their career and field questions from youth mentees. We're also transitioning our annual department tour to the virtual space so students can walk in their mentors' shoes, see the workplace and learn more about specific areas within the department.
Behind the Badge: How has the North Orange County Public Safety Task Force been a part of the program?
Allison Hata: The North Orange County Public Safety Task Force enabled us to connect with law enforcement partners that are invested in supporting the communities they serve. Programs like the Task Force give us a vehicle to expand our program, serve more children and help them explore new pathways through mentorship.
Behind the Badge: Right now the program is only in North Orange County? Is this a program that will see expansion all over?
Allison Hata: We are always interested in opportunities to grow and serve more youth, particularly with our site-based programs that support career development! Expansion within our adult site-based programs like Bigs with Badges requires partnership within the community though, since we match our site-based youth one-to-one with volunteers specifically from that partner site. We encourage interested departments to connect with us and learn more about getting involved!