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How can we Bridge the Gap Between Police and our At-Risk Youth?

Updated: Oct 20, 2021

Growing up as a kid in the city these days has become increasingly difficult. Columbus reached its 96th homicide two days ago, with the senseless death of a 17 year old girl who was at a park with her friends. The relationship between law enforcement and neighborhoods has always been a challenging balance between maintaining "law and order" and community partnering. The events of last year have deepened that divide and fractured trust and respect on both sides. As Bright Lights Kids Director Alex Mazzocco was brainstorming ideas for this year's Summer Day Camp theme, she kept coming back to "Everyday Heroes." The big idea that emerged was to help kids recognize that they have heroes in their daily lives, whether it be their parents, caregivers, teachers, church leaders, coaches, or police officers. Given her family's military background, Alex has a deep respect and appreciation for law enforcement officers. As the "everyday heroes" theme emerged, she caught a vision for the idea of helping to bridge the gap between law enforcement and her Franklinton neighborhood kids.

Through mutual friends, Alex was connected with Columbus Police Officer Jesse Smith. Through a conversation, they discovered that they both shared the same vision, but weren’t quite sure what it would look like yet. After subsequent conversations and some creative thinking, they set up an initial meeting where Officer Smith would bring 5 of his fellow officers to Day Camp and they would interact with the kids. However, this was no ordinary meeting. Alex arranged for the officers to come in plain clothes and play games with the Day Campers for the first hour and then she would introduce them as officers.

After playing tag outside, (it was raining that day but that wasn't going to stop them!), Alex brought the kids inside and had the officers share their names and what they did for a living. The collective gasps quickly gave way to, “No way! You guys are cops” and “But you look normal!” As the officers shared, the kids soon discovered that several of the officers grew up in Franklinton and the Hilltop and played on the same streets, and went to the same schools as the Day Camp kids. The officers shared about being dads and wanting to go home safely to their sons and daughters after work.

Each Wednesday, the officers come to Day Camp and connect with the kids by engaging in activities ranging from baking cookies and playing Old Maid card tournaments, to creating marshmallow guns and having epic battles in the field. The kids have also had the opportunity to visit the Columbus Police Department helicopter hanger, mounted police stables, the K9 unit and climb inside the SWAT vehicles and learn about the equipment. This has been especially fun and educational this year as nearly ¾ of the Day Campers are boys!

One evening during the week, the kids were outside playing in the field and one of the officers drove past while on duty. Officer Dan recognized the kids from Day Camp before they knew who he was, since he was in uniform. He stopped his cruiser and got out and once the kids recognized him, they began shouting his name and were excited that he had stopped. He gave them a tour of his cruiser, let them turn on the siren, model his hat, and answered a bunch of curious questions.

The beauty of the evening was that the kids’ parents and half of the neighborhood block were out on their porches observing the whole encounter. To the kids, it was Officer Dan, an “everyday hero” who played Old Maid and baked cookies earlier in the week. To Alex and Officer Jesse, it was their vision - “bridging the gap” - becoming a reality before their eyes as well as the entire neighborhood block. To the rest of the Lower Lights Ministries staff, this is simply the mission statement - “restoration of the whole person and communities through transformative relationships” - being lived out on the neighborhood streets.


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