Imagine being a kid in a community with over 7,000 gang members, where the life expectancy rate is the lowest in California. Picture what it would be like to return home every day after school and have to stay inside, because there’s too much violence on the streets related to narcotics sales. In Watts, California, this is the reality for many school children.
However, there is a bridge to a safer place. It’s called Operation Progress. Founded over 15 years ago by LAPD officers, the program’s goal is to create hope and opportunity for the neighborhood’s most disadvantaged children. Students who are invited to participate in Operation Progress (OP) become part of an educational scholarship and mentorship program where they’re placed in a private school, and also paired with LAPD officers who act as mentors.
The officers volunteer their time to engage in various activities with the OP scholars. They might go on field trips, or simply out to eat. This spring, Officer Andy Salcido and Officer Erick Ortiz spent time training their mentees for the Run to Remember LA 10K race.
“We pick up these kids and take them out on runs, we have a running group. We just trained them for the event. So we have long runs and track runs during the week,” says Officer Salcido. “And it’s more like a team building experience and we try to motivate them. Pretty much make them come out of their shell and put them in leadership roles so they can go back to their schools and their communities and see themselves as leaders.”
Officer Salcido has been a volunteer mentor for five years, and currently has five scholars that he’s mentoring through Operation Progress. “We go visit them at schools, we meet with their teachers and make sure everything is going good at school, constantly checking in on report cards and also we always check in with them at home.”
If success is measured one scholar at a time, the future is looking good. This past year the very first LAPD OP student began studying at Boston College. And while the program is clearly making an impact on individual students, Officer Salcido believes it’s also having a positive effect on the Watts community.
“Crime has gone down a lot and I believe the reason it’s gone down, is back in the day people didn’t want to talk to us, because they were all scared and intimidated by the gangs.” Now the officers receive more calls from community members and leaders to let them know if there are crimes happening. With a higher level of reporting, Salcido adds that, “A lot of the gangs are hesitant to commit crimes or do shootings because they know we have such a good relationship with the community that we’re going to get that phone call.”
Being involved with the OP program has changed Officer Salcido, too. Where once he was considering his career track, he is now more focused on encouraging his mentees to do whatever they want to do.
It seems that paying it forward has a multiplying effect. “That’s the thing with our mentees is most—the majority of them—they want to give back,” says Salcido. “Because they say they wouldn’t be where they are without us.” When they get a job in the future, the students say they want to come back and help out the community. “Help the way we helped them. But at the same time, be a lawyer, be a doctor, be president of the United States.”