Dozens of children, parents and police officers whooped and cheered as 6-year-old Edith Banuelos of Glendale, reaching into a white Stetson cowboy hat, drew a card that said she had just "adopted" Lt. Rodger Simon of the Glendale Police Department.
Simon quickly hoisted the youngster onto a desk and pinned a badge to her ruffled yellow dress. Edith pressed the adoption card to her heart and announced proudly in Spanish, "He's my brother." Simon promised to take Edith and her sister for a ride in a police car.
The adoption last week made Edith the first member of a "posse" formed at the Catholic Youth Organization's Glendale Community Center, a beehive of recreation snuggled amid warehouses and factories on San Fernando Road. More than 50 other youngsters, mainly Latinos from the neighborhood in southern Glendale, followed Edith's lead, similarly "adopting" members of the police force.
The Community Organized Youth Posse is a pilot program of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Glendale Police Officers Assn. designed for youngsters between the ages of 3 and 8. Once matched in the lottery, each child and officer, if all goes well, will become "special friends" and get together as often as possible. The children are encouraged to include the officer's name in their daily prayers.
Sister Georgianna Cahill, director of the archdiocese youth program, said she originated the idea for the posse to foster better relations between police and children living in minority areas. She said similar programs soon will be started at youth centers in San Fernando and in Los Angeles.
"Little kids have negative ideas about police that they get from their older brothers and sisters, from gang members or from kids who have been in trouble or incarcerated," Cahill said. "We have tried to come up with a program for tiny tots to prevent those ideas."
Asking the children to pray for the safety of a particular officer makes him almost like one of the family, Cahill said. "I personally believe that policemen put their lives on the line every day for us. It is important for us to pray for their safety and, at the same time, to develop a special friendship," she said.
Fear of Uniforms
Carlos Reyes, director of the Glendale CYO, said the program is particularly important for children who come from El Salvador and other strife-torn Central American nations where men in uniform can be very much feared. He recalled incidents of children sobbing hysterically when their family's car was stopped by a policeman for a minor traffic infraction; it was as if the children expected the father to be arrested and taken away, never to be seen again.
"A uniform is horrifying to those children," Reyes said. "A policeman is someone they fear."
He said such young children with preconceived fears would be unable to get help if they needed it. "Suppose a child is stolen from his home," Reyes said. "If he had an opportunity to run up to an officer, would he do it? No way. These kids are afraid."
Police Capt. Brook McMahon, who is also a member of the CYO advisory board, said the posse is "a good way for the officers to get to know the kids in the neighborhood." About 50 of the 177 members of the Police Department have volunteered to participate. In an effort to reach older children and teen-agers, the officers' association in January donated a pool table to the Glendale center, and policemen stop by sometimes to play a few games with the youngsters.
If there was any fear of the officers at the community center's posse party last week, it quickly disappeared. The children paid 25 cents to $2 (whatever they could afford for the special badges and cards) to participate in the lottery. At first, they stared in awe at the smiling, uniformed officers who towered above them. One officer who knelt down to talk to some youngsters was quickly surrounded by a crowd of curious onlookers.
When Sister Victoria Trujillo, a social worker with the youth group, explained to children that they could adopt an officer as part of their family, 8-year-old Alexandria Mendoza asked, to the amusement of others, "Will he be our son?"
Patricia Castillo, 3, who had picked the name of Glendale Police Chief David J. Thompson, momentarily appeared about to cry when the chief stepped up to meet her. But she quickly recovered when Thompson, grinning broadly, said, "I'm so proud you adopted me."
Veronica Alvarez, 5, was quiet when she was introduced to her new special friend, Sgt. Ray Edey. Then, suddenly remembering her adoptive responsibilities, she dashed off, returning with a glass of lime punch for the officer.