It’s been said that hard work is its own reward.
Sometimes, though, life hands you something bigger.
Jacob “J.P.” Pierce and Carolina Delgadillo, both students at South Middle School, can tell you about that.
The duo is among eight local eighth-graders from South and North middle schools awarded a trip to Disney World in Orlando. The trip was sponsored by the non-profit organization Cops Connecting with Kids. Law enforcement personnel from the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office and the Henderson Police Department, as well as civilian employees and school staff chaperoned the students for the week-long excursion Jan. 22-26.
When the announcement was made last fall, Pierce, 15, said he couldn’t believe his name was called.
“I didn’t know I was going to be chosen. I thought it was going to be someone else,” he said. “I was nervous when I was called up there. And excited, too.”
Thirteen-year-old Delgadillo said she had a similar reaction.
When her name was called, she said, “I gasped! I turned to my friend and said, ‘Oh my God!’ and then I ran up there!”
Learning they would be accompanied by HCSO Deputy Jason Hargitt, who serves as South’s school resource officer, and HPD’s Lt. Daniel Lehman and Sgt. Kenneth Corman was at first, a bit daunting, Pierce and Delgadillo said.
“They are cops,” Pierce said. “So that surprised me. Like they usually catch criminals and fight crime. So, I felt that if I did something wrong, I’d be arrested or something.”
That anxiety, he said, wore off “really quickly. They were pretty chill and nice.”
Before the trip, Delgadillo said, “Me and Officer Hargitt (exchanged) normal respectful waves in the hallway, because I didn’t really know him. But in the weeks leading up to the trip, we’d have short conversations in the hallway, and he’d be kind of my friend.”
Beth Bates, a civilian employee with HPD, Melissa Kidd, choir director at NMS, and Andrew Burns, Band Director at SMS, also served as chaperones.
While Guardians of the Galaxy and Tower of Terror topped the list of favorite rides, both Pierce and Delgadillo said the take-away for them is the friends they made – especially among the other teens.
“Meeting the people who were chosen, and getting to know them,” Pierce said was his favorite part of the trip. “They were nice and relatable.”
“My favorite memory is getting to meet all the people, and having a lot of fun with them,” Delgadillo said. “But the memory that sticks out the most is being in the pool with them all and just playing Marco Polo.”
Pierce said the best way to describe this trip, “For me it was a life-changing moment. Because I’ve never been to Disney before, and it felt magical.”
“I would say it is definitely something I will never forget,” Delgadillo said, “and it’s probably the most amazing experience of my life.”
“I want to thank all the people who went on the trip, and everyone who voted for me,” she said. “But I also really want to thank Beth Bates. She’s from the police department, and she was really like a mother to us on this trip, and I will never forget her.”
Both Hargitt and Lehman said the trip to Disney was to honor the daily hard work and solid character of these Henderson County students.
“These kids were chosen because of their character,” Hargitt said. “This group of kids we have this year, all eight are absolutely amazing young men and women. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for them. They are very polite, very respectful.
“This is their trip. It’s not ours. It’s their trip, and what I’ve learned from them is that in the next generation, these kids are going to step up and be leaders. I feel good about it,” he said.
“I want them and everyone to know, we are rewarding them,” he said. “They are already doing the right things, and that’s why they were selected. They are leaders in class; they show up and give 100 percent effort.
“These are good kids,” Lehman said. “And we are trying to reward them while building those relationships with them. It’s really cool to see them come out of their shells.
“When we first start going to the schools and eating with them … they are pretty shy. But as we eat with them and have movie nights and get ready for the trip, they start telling us more. We started joking around. We get to build friendships with them. These young folks learn we are here to help the community.”
Burns, a first-time chaperone, said, the comradery among the group was encouraging to experience.
“It was the best feeling in the world to see the students make connections with the other students from the trip and the adults that chaperoned it,” he said. “We rode Mt. Everest in Animal Kingdom. After we got off the ride, we went to review the pictures. As I was looking at the pictures, I noticed that every student was riding with someone from the other school. This was the first time I noticed something like that on the trip. After that ride it was very common to see that in our group.”
Burns said another favorite memory involved a very shy teen.
“On the first day she would not say much to the adults or the students on the trip,” he said. “By the time we left the trip, she was laughing and talking to all of us. I still see this student in the hallway at school and she has started to say hello to me in the hall. This didn’t happen before the trip.”
Hargitt said as the week progressed, the group began to relax and become more comfortable with each other.
“They came out of their shells and started to cut up with us. Each has a great sense of humor. And we are glad that their guards are coming down, and they feel more comfortable around us,” he said.
“Because we are citizens of Henderson before we are police. We live here and work here. It’s kind of neat to see them realize that we are just people. We aren’t in uniform. We are just here cutting up and having a good time,” he said.
The Disney trip is the pinnacle of the journey which begins months in advance.
“There’s a lot of planning, a lot of fundraising,” Hargitt said. “It’s basically year around. We have a booth at the Tri-Fest that helps with donations. Businesses will give money. It’s not just that we all show up and have a good time for a week. Beth Bates with HPD and Lt. Lehman are always doing something to make sure this goes off without a hitch.”
“The Cops Connecting with Kids program is entirely community supported,” Lehman said. “It’s a lot of work for the team who works all year to put it together, and it’s not just police officers. There are many volunteers who give their time … we work all year to come up with ways to make money.
“Our local businesses step forward and see the value of the program and help us see to it that it continues,” he said.
The fundraising and the volunteer hours yielded enough money to sponsor almost 100 students from Henderson County, as well as Vanderburgh and Gibson counties in Indiana.
“There are now five law enforcement agencies involved, in three school districts, in two different states,” Lehman said. “That’s a big program. On this trip in January, there were 80 students. We went to two different airports to get to Florida. That’s a lot of moving parts.”
Investing in the future
The heartbeat of the Cops Connecting with Kids program is about building relationships and investing in the next generation.
“There is a young lady who went on the very first trip in 2019 that I see around Henderson often,” Lehman said. “We still talk at times. There is another young lady who went two years ago. She attends several events and talks to the kids who are about to go on the trip regarding her experience. It’s really cool to see them out in public at Tri-fest, or a ball game, and they are interacting with us, and they know we are just normal people. They know we aren’t always doing police work. “
“When this week is over, we won’t lose contact with them,” Hargitt said. “We will check in with them and see how they are doing.”
Cops Connecting with Kids “is about relationships,” he said. “Showing them we aren’t the bad guys. We are the good guys, and we do care. We want people to be successful. The trip opens a line of communication. And now they might not be uncomfortable talking to police anymore. We are people first, before we are police. And that’s the big thing with this and building relationships.”
“We are just now getting to the point where the kids from our first trip are young adults in our community,” Lehman said. “They’ve moved out of high school now. So, I think this is where we’re going to start seeing a lot of that investment coming back. They are going to be co-workers, neighbors … they are here in our community.
“You may not see it right away, with the exception of that relationship when they are young teens, but when they get older and start working in the community a lot more, that’s where we get to see the (fruits) of the CCK program being more noticeable,” he said.
As police officers, Hargitt said the experience “is refreshing for us. Most of the time when we deal with people, they’ve called 911 and are having a pretty bad day or a bad moment in the day. For us, it’s good. We can just be dads, older brothers, aunts or uncles and all of that. That’s what makes us feel good about it. Me personally, my favorite part is experiencing the journey through their eyes; seeing their smiles and talking with them about it after. That’s really, really awesome.”
“Some of these kids are leaving Henderson for the first time,” Lehman said. “They are flying for the first time; they are eating new foods for the first time. I think it’s so cool to expose them to the world and show them that there’s so much more out there. I want them to know if they keep staying on the right path the community supports them, we as the police support them, and they can do anything they want, and they can achieve so many things.”
“This trip is an amazing experience for the students and adults that get to go,” Burns said. “It allows students to experience something they may never get to. Most of the students that went on this trip have never been on an airplane, and none of them have been to Disney World. They will have that memory and experience for the rest of their lives.”
“As police officers,” Lehman said, “our job can be very stressful at times. It can wear you down with some of the things we see.
“But having the opportunity to see these kids experience new things and stay on the right path that makes me hopeful that there are good people out there; that we are doing better, and making strides to do better, not just in our profession, but in our community.”