Tustin Police inspire kids through Run with a Cop program

By Greg Mellen

The drizzle and rain falling at Robert Heideman Elementary did nothing to bring down the spirits of Officer Matt Roque as he greets participants at the finale of the Tustin Police Department’s Run with a Cop program.

“Dude. What’s going on?” Roque said, slapping palms with one of the participants.

“You ready to run?” he shouted to another.

“No, not like that, like you mean it,” he said when another gives a half-hearted slap.

On your mark, get set . . . Kids at Heideman Elementary start the Run with a Cop event with Tustin PD and Golden West College’s police academy Class of 157.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Third grader Owen Silva shyly approached and handed Roque a handwritten note with a drawing. It read: “You rock, and I hope I win.”

More than 100 kids from the school braved the inclement conditions on Saturday, March 10 for the conclusion of the 10-week program in which kids at the school ran and trained twice a week. More than 35 of the kids also signed up to run in the Tustin Hangar 5K the following day.

Participants at Saturday’s run each completed five laps around the school’s sports fields, collecting popsicle sticks for each lap that they later traded for games and prizes. Every child also received a medal for completing the course.

Tustin PD Sgt. Andrew Birozy gives high-fives to kids as they complete each lap.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Talking about the need for such a program, Roque said “There are no nearby parks in this neighborhood. This gives them an alternative to just hanging out.”

Roque started the program three years ago as both a way to help kids get fit and to bolster relationships in a neighborhood where residents are often wary of police.

“This is not just for the kids, it’s the whole community,” said Roque, who in 2017 won a California Police Officers Association Award of Distinction for the program he started.

Kids and parents show up to Heideman Elementary School despite the rain.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Jonny Parker, a fourth-grade teacher at the school, has seen a change in attitudes toward the police since the program began.

“When police respond to calls, they are often seen as outsiders,” Parker said. “This lets them become insiders. This way the police are not the enemy. It reduces the fear.”

Jacssiry Munoz, a fifth grader who out ran all others on field to win the run, said her attitude about police has changed.

“I feel more comfortable around them,” she said. “I used to be afraid.”

Recruits Stephen Aguirre and Chelsea Martin of Golden West College’s police academy Class of 157 lead a team-building cheer with the kids during a street hockey game, part of the pre-run activities.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“Over the years there has been a divide between the community and police,” Chief Charlie Celano said. “We’ve done a lot to bridge that. It’s hard to put a value on that.”

Celano said he would like to see the program expand to other schools if funding becomes available.

Tustin Mayor Al Murray, a former Irvine policeman, sees big potential benefits in community outreach efforts like Run with a Cop.

“If they build relationships, hopefully it extends into adulthood,” Murray said. “In my estimation it’s a gift that keeps giving.”

Kids play a form of street hockey with Golden West College recruits Stephen Aguirre and Chelsea Martin.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

On hand for the event were recruits from the Golden West Police Academy Class 157, who ran with the kids and volunteered at the event.

Troy Wright, who is bound for the Orange Police Department, was happy to interact with the kids and give them a different perception of cops.

“It’s a really great opportunity to show what police officers really do, rather than what they see on social media,” he said.

Tustin PD Officer Matt Roque gathers the kids at the starting line.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Wright said he would like to be part of something similar where he’s going.

“If they have a program like this, I absolutely will be involved,” Wright said.

As Parker puts it, “Instead of kids running from the cops, they’re running to the cops.”

One unexpected outcome is that many of the children at the school in a recent assignment to write about what they wanted to be when they grew up answered, “police”.

Recruits from Golden West College’s police academy Class of 157 arrive on the field at Heideman Elementary.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“We’re trying to change the culture to consider the future,” Parker said about the assignment. “Before, even getting them to say what they wanted to be was hard. They couldn’t see a future before, other than working an entry level retail job or something similar.”

“About 90 percent said they want to be police officers,” Roque said. “That’s why we do this, to make a positive influence. We’re stoked.”

Parker said the Run with a Cop program, as well as others such as flag football, soccer, and game nights at the school, have all had the effect of bringing students together and led to a spike in parent participation.

Tustin PD and Golden West College’s police academy Class of 157 gather at the starting line.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“They have a much better sense of community within the school and beyond,” he said. “This was a school you had to go to. Now it’s a school you get to go to.”

In the program’s short history, it has been able to boost participation and support from outside groups as well, according to Roque.

The California Cruisers kicked in to sponsor kids in the Tustin Hangar 5K, and Snooze, a Tustin eatery, donated about 50 pairs of running shoes to the kids. At Saturday’s event, UC Irvine sent its Eye Mobile van and diagnosed 33 kids with vision issues that it helped correct.

Kids make their way around the trees and a patrol car on the far side of the campus.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

A makeshift carnival midway was set up where kids could test themselves in games such as bean bag tosses, bowling, pitching, and kicking soccer balls.

Damian Anguiano, a fourth grader who transferred to Heideman from a school in Santa Ana, said this was the first time he had been in a program like Roque’s.

“It’s fun,” he said. “He makes you run, and then he lets you play with him.”

Roque says he is demanding with the kids, but they seem to respond. Each class Roque gives the challenges to complete. He also puts the kids through strength and agility testing and talks about nutrition.

Tustin PD Officer Michelle Jankowski walks with 10-year-old Ximena Gabriel of Tustin who wanted to participate in Run with a Cop despite her asthma acting up that morning.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The class has inspired Anguiano to consider law enforcement when he grows up.

“I want to be in the FBI,” he said.

Anguiano was about to expand on his answer when his friend, Jose Ortiz, ran over to show a gift certificate he had won for a cheeseburger at Ruby’s.

“That’s my favorite,” Anguiano said as he ran off to test his luck.

Parents gather in the light rain to cheer on their kids.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

And then there was Ximena Gabriel, a 10-year-old fourth grader.

She arrived at the event bundled in a hooded purple parka and wearing boots.

Her mother, Elsa, said the youngster wouldn’t be able to participate because she was ill and her asthma was acting up.

Roque suggested she try to walk one lap and he would make sure she received a medal for completing the event.

Ximena, surrounded by the police academy volunteers, started at a walk. Five laps later, she ran across the line, giving Roque a big high five.

Recreation Leader Bailey Blair of Tustin Parks and Recreation gives a high-five to 9-year-old Eduardo Cano of Tustin after playing bean bag toss, part of the pre-run activities.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Tustin PD Sgt. Andrew Birozy, left, and Deputy Chief Paul Garaven (blue and white jacket) greet kids as they complete each lap.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Kids run under an arch of balloons as they complete each lap.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Tustin PD Officer Matt Roque places a medal around 9-year-old Ezequiel Rivera’s neck.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Golden West College’s police academy Class of 157 follows 10-year-old Ximena Gabriel of Tustin who surprised everyone by running the last lap despite having asthma. Behind her are academy recruits Chelsea Martin and Alexa Elkabbara.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Nine-year-old Samuel Rojas of Tustin completes another lap with Golden West College’s police academy Class of 157 behind him, including Tustin PD Recruit Josh Schlesinger and Tustin PD Officer Don Houle, far left.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Tustin PD Officer Matt Roque gives high-fives from Valerie Valenci, 7, left, and her brother, Manuel Valenci 6, of Tustin.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC