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Mentorship program pairs police with pupils

Bigs in Blue designed to break down barriers, fears of kids

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North East Independent School District Police Officer Marisol Garza (left) and Nimitz Middle School sixth-grader Vanessa Vega are Bigs in Blue partners, a program encouraging friendships between students and peace officers. Photo by Collette Orquiz

At Nimitz Middle School, Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas is helping at-risk youth grow up less fearful of law enforcement by pairing cops and kids through Bigs in Blue.

While the national initiative started in 2017, in schools across the city the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, the San Antonio Police Department, the San Antonio Independent School District and most recently the North East Independent School District have answered the call to action.

“There’s a fear sometimes about the police and that’s the exact opposite of how we want young people to feel,” said Christina Martinez, Big Brothers Big Sisters vice president of external affairs. “We want young people to feel like the police are there to keep them safe.”

Of the 50 officers enrolled in the program, six are from the NEISD Police Department working with Nimitz students.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas has been around for 43 years. The national movement was started in 1904 in New York City. Volunteers called “Bigs” are paired with children — or “Littles” — to help the latter realize their full potential and build their future, according to its website.

In the Nimitz Bigs in Blue program, students are bused to the NEISD police station once a month during lunch to spend time with their Big Brother or Big Sister — and enjoy pizza.

Officer Marisol Garza, 43, has been mentoring Vanessa Vega, an 11-year-old sixth-grader, since November.

“I’m more on the reserved side and she’s more of the outgoing, so I think it’s a perfect match because there’s never a dull moment in our conversations,” said Garza, who has six children of her own.

Since 2014, Garza has been working as an NEISD police officer and is stationed at Reagan High School. She began her career when she was 19 with BCSO, retiring after 17 years.

“I think that they should feel that as they grow older — because we’re in a uniform — that they can always approach us and talk to us, ask us questions that we might know the answer,” Garza said. “We might lead them in a better direction or give them insight into making a better choice.”

Martinez said another reason to pair youngsters with peace officers is exposure to a career in law enforcement.

Bigs in Blue is primarily a workplace mentorship. Big Brothers Big Sisters also conducts community-based mentoring in which adults see the Littles outside of their homes and take them on outings.

This is Vanessa’s second Big. In fifth grade, she was paired with a mentor from Pape-Dawson Engineers Inc.

Vanessa said having Garza as her Big has already taught her so much.

“I’ve learned that when I go through stuff to kind of never to really give up, just keep on trying and don’t really let other people take you down,” Vanessa said.

Vanessa said she wasn’t scared of the police before being paired with Garza.

Traditional Bigs volunteer with the idea that they’ll continue mentoring a child until they graduate from high school. With the Bigs in Blue program, officials hope police officers will do the same.

Garza is glad to be a part of the program and hope it expands.

“I hope other officers will try and be a part of it,” she added.

Both Garza and Vanessa hope to stay together through high school.

Recruiting for Bigs in Blue and other mentors never ends, Martinez said. The program is seeking more volunteers, particularly men.

“I feel like police officers should mentor more kids like me because we can be really shy and for them to talk with us,” Vanessa said. “We can kind of make more friends and be able to express more of what we have.”

Those interested in becoming a Big can visit bigmentor.org.

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