When Jesobie Williams’ 9-year-old, football-loving son heard he’d be playing while police officers refereed, he was a little thrown off.
“When I first spoke to him about it … he acted like he didn’t really want to do it,” she said. “But once we got out here, he warmed up to them, and all of them are talking to him.”
Her son was one of dozens who played flag football while firefighters and police officers acted as referees Saturday at Brainerd High School.
Roenesha Anderson put together the event after winning $3,000 in a Causeway Challenge, which grants money to people who have ideas to make the community stronger.
Anderson graduated from Brainerd High School and grew up in an area that was “typically an at-risk neighborhood” and “poverty-stricken,” she said.
She, her brothers and cousins often saw police officers patrolling the area, but they didn’t engage with each other, she said.
That caused distrust, she said. It made the children think the police were looking for them to do something bad.
“As I got older, I realized that wasn’t the case,” she said. “They are sent to the area to do their jobs, but we can improve the relationship [between at-risk youth and police officers].”
To do that, she created a program called PLAY, Police Leadership and Youth, which is like one she heard existed about 25 years ago.
Since then, there hasn’t been a program that allowed for consistent engagement between inner-city children and authorities, she said.
More than 40 kids signed up to play Saturday for what Anderson called “a pilot program.”
“This event is an introduction to what we are wanting to do consistently,” she said.
She recruited the children herself and talked to football coaches she knew growing up. Police Chief Fred Fletcher was supportive and helped get some police together, she said.
Programs like this are important because they allow police officers to develop lasting relationships with community members of all ages, Fletcher said in a prepared statement.
“We want kids to run to us if they are scared … not be scared of us,” he said. “Interactions like these help us build that bond.”