Boys & Girls Club connects kids, cops amid tense summer

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — J’vaun Hayes is scared.

“I don’t want to get shot,” Hayes, 17, said, referring to the uptick in violence this summer in Grand Rapids. “Kids are shooting each other over I don’t even know what. It’s just like everyone hates each other and I don’t know why.”

But Hayes said some of his friends also fear the very people whose job it is to protect them: the Grand Rapids Police Department.

“Because of what they see. They only see the bad side of them. People hate them, but they don’t know them. There are some great cops out there,” he said.

Hayes likes and respects police because he got to know some officers as a young teen spending time at Boys and Girls Club of Grand Rapids’ Paul I. Phillips Recreation Center.

There’s a GRPD officer assigned full-time to each of the city’s three Boys and Girls Club facilities: Paul I Phillips on Madison Avenue SE, Seidman Club on Crofton Street SE and Steil Club on Straight Avenue NW.

“It’s a very unique situation,” said Derrick Owens, lead club director at Boys and Girls Club of Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth.

Owens called the connections youngsters make with police at “very impactful.”

Now there’s a new effort to forge those relationships even earlier. 

“The Kids and Cops program specifically is a brand new one we just rolled out this summer,” said Patrick Placzkowski, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Grand Rapids. “It’s aimed at younger kids, ages 6 to 9, with the idea that it’s a great age for them to get introduced to police officers and vice versa so they can get a chance to develop relationships and get to know each other just as people.”

GRPD Officer Helen Wu, who’s based full-time at Paul I. Phillips, is running the pilot program, which brings children together with Grand Rapids Police once weekly.

“This is the most impressionable age. This is where I can make a difference,” Wu said during a recent Kids and Cops field trip to GRPD headquarters. “We’re fighting social media. We’re fighting the reputations in the news. All they see is the bad side. They never see the good side of police. They don’t know what we do.” 

At headquarters, the children learned about GRPD’s bomb-detecting robot from Lt. Pat Merrill.

“Every positive contact is worth its weight in gold,” Merrill said. “All you’re doing is dropping that seed in the field, trying to build something constructive and beautiful long-term… You’re looking to show to kids that police officers have a purpose, and the purpose is positive, and police officers are people.”

Right now, the Kids and Cops program is only available to children ages 6 to 9 at the Paul I Phillips location on Madison, but the Boys and Girls Club hopes to expand it to the two other facilities at some point. The organization also offers a mentoring and training program called Pathways to Policing to club members and alumni ages 13 to 20.

All Boys and Girls Club centers are open to members weekdays this summer between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. It costs $5 a year to become a member.

In 2007, the Boys and Girls Club merged with Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth, an organization created in 1938 by Grand Rapids police. Alarmed by a rise in juvenile arrests, then-police Superintendent Frank O’Malley proposed providing supervised recreation for kids in their neighborhoods. Eight decades later, the Boys and Girls Club maintains a close relationship with GRPD.

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