As a police officer in the gang unit of the Dallas, Texas, Police Department, Christy Chamberlain sees young people caught in the grip of delinquency nearly every day. She has encountered juveniles as young as 12 who are involved in all types of crime. Even murder. One who stands out in her memory is a middle schooler who repeatedly broke into cars. Then one day officers found him running from a stolen car and carrying a gun.
While young people who break the law must be held accountable, early intervention can help them make right choices.
"These kids need to see positive role models," Christy says. Seeing that need led Christy to make time to do something about it. Last June, she became a mentor through Bigs in Blue, a program of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. It matches police officers, "bigs," with "littles," children who come largely from poor or single-parent homes, or who have an incarcerated parent.
Christy and her "little," 8-year-old Nyla, meet weekly to enjoy tacos or other snacks after school. Then they hang out together. They visit museums, water or amusement parks, and the ice skating rink. To support one of Nyla's special interests, Christy found an after-school gymnastics camp and takes her to the classes.
They have fun together, but the aim of their relationship is much more. Christy supports Nyla's interest in reading through trips to the library. And when Nyla's school began allowing students to trade their school uniforms for college T-shirts and jeans on "College Mondays," Christy gave her one from Purdue University—her own alma mater. She has already seen a change in Nyla's attitude toward school.
"Her outlook on learning is much better," Christy says. Christy encourages Nyla to look to the future. When Nyla said she would like to be a fashion designer someday, Christy took her to meet a friend who works in the fashion institute. Now Nyla says she wants to be a fashion designer and a teacher: "Because I'm smart and I love to learn."
"I'm excited for Nyla," Christy says of her bubbly "little." "She's going to do great things."
BBBS in Dallas launched Bigs in Blue in 2017. Spurred on by one suspect's senseless murder of five Dallas police officers the year before, the organization wanted to find a way to build relationships between residents and officers. Currently, 110 children in the Greater Dallas area, like Nyla, are matched with mentors who are police officers. Nationwide, 82 BBBS agencies sponsor Bigs in Blue initiatives that, in total, have matched 1,090 police officers with youngsters in the communities they patrol.
Nyla, who lives in a high-crime area of Dallas, was skeptical when she first learned Christy was a police officer. Christy has noticed a shift in Nyla's perceptions.
"She stopped asking if I shoot all the black people," Christy said, "and wrote a story about an officer who saved a puppy."
"Mentoring is a powerful tool to help build relationships and understanding between youth and law enforcement," says Andrew Young of BBBS-Dallas, "which can help strengthen a community." Research shows that mentored youth are less likely to use drugs and engage in delinquent and anti-social activity. Mentors help them form positive social bonds that lead to better relationships and an improved outlook for their future.
The Office of Justice Programs' Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has a 20-year history of investing in mentoring programs, through research, operational support and capacity-building. Last year, OJJDP awarded more than $83 million in grants to mentoring organizations, including Big Brothers Big Sisters.
OJJDP also supports the National Mentoring Resource Center. Last year alone, the center provided training and other support to 378 school, community and faith-based mentoring programs that served more than 55,000 youth nationwide.
"At OJP, we view mentoring as a vehicle for positive youth development and a very effective prevention tool," says Matt Dummermuth, OJP's Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General.
At her young age, Nyla doesn't understand all the benefits her relationship with Christy can bring. She just knows she enjoys spending time with her "big sister."