Build it and they will come
Omaha police detective Tony Espejo has built a Field of Dreams as founder of PACE – Police Athletics for Community Engagement. The free sports program is open to metro area boys and girls.
He and his colleagues in the Nebraska Latino Peace Officers Association, together with the Omaha Police Athletic League and area volunteers, established PACE in 2005 in South Omaha. Though the program’s grown beyond those borders, South O continues to be PACE’s base. After all, the area’s home turf for Espejo, who grew up there. He’s also worked its streets as a member of the Omaha Police Department gang unit.
He started PACE to give kids positive activities that keep them from the grip of gangs. A seminar in Florida sparked the idea.
“If the 10 year-olds we deal wit are not pointed in the right direction and given opportunities then in five years they might be the young people we arrest,” he said. “I did not want South Omaha to turn into some of those neighborhoods out in L.A. where there’s generationally gang member after gang member in certain families. I didn’t want a continuation of that negativity.
“I remembered what my neighborhood used to be like before gangs and I wanted to return it back to that. I want kids to be able to walk down the street and not worry about getting harassed or jumped or being in the wrong neighborhood. I want them to be able to go play, be with their friends and be kids.”
As PACE has put down roots, progress has been made.
“In 2018 there was a 93 percent decline in gang graffiti,” Espejo said. “We know there’s a decrease in gang activity. Some gangs that existed nine years ago aren’t around anymore.”
A safer community is a win for everyone, especially for officers patrolling the streets.
“At the end of the day, it makes our job easier. If more people are concerned about you in those neighborhoods, if you have relationships with people who live there, your percentage of going home safe increases.”
He said where a succession of sports programs came into the community only to disappear, PACE has followed through on its promises.
“I wanted a program people knew they could latch onto and was going to continuously be there,” Espejo said,
“and we’ve been around 14 years now. I knew there was absolutely a need for it. Every year it grew. We started with six soccer teams and now we’re at a hundred teams.”
PACE went from serving 75 to 80 kids with only soccer to adding baseball, flag football, volleyball and CrossFit and serving upwards of 5,000 kids today.
“We always try to stay ahead and have enough programming for the kids. It comes down to time and money and access and opportunity, We’re pretty open. If you show up wanting to play, then you’re going to play.”
PACE removes barriers to participation.
“If you look at youth sports today, it’s about paying to play. It can get extremely expensive extremely fast. We don’t ever want to turn a kid away that wants it, that’s willing to put in the hard work, go to practice, and participate as a teammate.
“In South Omaha we’re talking about families that have only one car. The ability for these kids to get to practices or games is difficult. That’s why we try to keep things within walking distance. We play at one place (Christie Heights ballfields at 36th and Q). On top of that we provide transportation.”
Kids find out about PACE by word of mouth, through interactions with officers and at school.
“We have a great partnership with OPS (Omaha Public Schools). OPS sends pamphlets home to make sure kids get registered before the summer. We start forming teams then. In the community officers pass out cards that look like ballgame tickets. It’s an invitation for kids to register for no cost athletics.”
More and more kids wear PACE jerseys. It’s that buy-in Espejo wants.
“It’d be great if one day a superstar came out of our program,” he said. “But we want is a hundred strong boys and girls growing into strong men and women and bringing up their families correctly. Traditionally in Omaha you move up and out of the inner city. We want these kids to move up but to stay in the neighborhood and impact it by bringing up the quality of life there.”
In PACE’s early years, Espejo recruited kids he came across in parks. He’d identify the group’s leader and have him-her organize a list of teammates. Espejo would then provide jerseys, equipment and coaches.
“Abraham Ledesma was one of those take-charge kids at Gifford Park. He’s that one who stood out. He said, ‘Yeah, man, I’ll put it together,’ and he and his brother did that. Now Abraham has graduated from UNO with a degree in exercise science and he’s back at PACE coaching soccer and our CrossFit program – empowering more kids.”
As PACE has grown, so has its budget, which now approaches $500,000. It’s supported by city funds, foundation grants and private donations. Espejo’s former shift supervisor, Rich Gonzalez, has been a big advocate of PACE within the OPD ranks. He now helps run it. Since 2016 Espejo’s made PACE his full-time job.
“That’s when our numbers really jumped up,” he said, because people were dedicated to this.”
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Sports program diverts at-risk youth from gangs
Police Athletics for Community Engagement or PACE has grown exponentially in its 14 years. From a single sport (soccer), six teams and 75 kids at the start, the South Omaha-based program now offers several sports, fields hundreds of teams and hosts thousands of participants. All of it’s offered free to youth.
Where founder Tony Espejo, an Omaha police detective, used to have to scour parks to recruit kids to form teams, the community now comes to PACE. Parents, neighborhoods and schools filter kids and teams to the ever expanding program.
Things are thriving at PACE, which always needs more donations and volunteers to help keep up with demand, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.
“There’s been times when we owed people thousands of dollars and those people were generous enough to let us get by so we could go out and hustle the money for the program,” Espejo said. “I stick with those partners to this day.
“There were dark times, man. Never in terms of trying to find kids. The kids were always there. It was trying to find the money to support those kids and getting push back from different people who questioned why I was working with kids and not arresting bad guys.”
He tells critics and skeptics, “We’re trying to prevent kids from becoming bad people. Sports is just a hook for us to teach those values that sports gives people – consistency, perseverance, teamwork.”
Espejo knows that without the right interventions, kids can be lured into gangs and criminal activity. Withstanding the pull of the streets, he said, “starts with strong family values.” “School’s not going to save you,” added. “It comes back to your family. If everybody handled their own business right, we’d have a lot less crime, a lot less social problems, a lot less anguish.”
Programs like PACE can help redirect youth before it’s too late.
“I feel like we’ve only got a certain amount of time before it gets really hard for those kids and they get on that path. I’ll tell you what that path is. At 9-10-11 years-old. they start hanging around with some gang members. They feel they belong to something. At 11-12-13, they’re somebody. They might even have a nickname by then. They’re pulling in work – doing tagging, fighting.
By 14-15-16, they’re pretty much out of school. They might have a kid on the way. They’ve been around, they’ve been in the game for a long time, they’re more experienced. They maybe move from fist fighting to shooting at people. They’re into their hustle selling weed or coke, making money. At 17-18-19, they’re big-time. They’ve been there, they’ve done it. Now they’re recruiting peewees to do the dirty work. They’re moving up making big dollars selling dope. They’ve probably got three-four kids. They drive a nice car.
“Then at 20-21-22, they get caught up and get federally indicted. They get put in jail. They do three to five years.
When they get out, they’ve got no education but they’re trying to change their lives. They’ve got four-five people they’ve gotta feed. It’s incredibly hard to start over then, even if well-intended. How you going to start over with all those obstacles?”
His message to kids: “Let’s avoid all that. Don’t even go down that road. Bring your friend with you. Come with us, we’ll teach you the values you need to be successful, such as goal-setting – from hitting a ball to doing well in school. Plus, you’ll have relationships with positive people.
“We want to show these kids, Hey, somebody commits time and money to provide these activities for you to benefit from. We want the kids to become adults who do the same for their neighborhood. I tell them, ‘One day someone’s going to ask you to do the same, and you will because you’ll remember what it was like.'”
The program thrives due to volunteers.
“We could not do it without the community,” Espejo said, “and the amount of people we have willing to come out to coach, to watch kids play, to participate, to donate.”
Making all its moving parts work is time-intensive and Espejo said, “I’ve sacrificed a lot. Without my wife taking care of things at home, I couldn’t do this. She gets it.” Espejo and his wife are parents to two children.
In 2017 the National Education Association recognized
the efforts of Espejo and the Nebraska Latino Peace Officers for their work with PACE and other community initiatives. That recognition has led police in cities around the nation to sound out the PACE team on how to do their own program.
“It reaffirms the idea that if you start something and you’re consistent and you work hard, good things will come out of it.” Espejo said. “We’re able to share that story with other communities that need to get it done.
“It’s really simple. It’s people loving these kids and showing them that someone cares about them. We do it through sports. These kids need to be busy. The only thing different about us doing it is that we’re cops.
We’re showing them we want this neighborhood to improve and we care about the places we patrol.”
Espejo feels PACE is an empowering example of communities doing for themselves.
“We as the South Omaha community need to learn how to be resourceful on our own. We need to get organized
and quit depending on other people to get the things we want. We can absolutely make things better for ourselves.”
Meanwhile. PACE is seeks to extend its reach into North Omaha. It’s another inner city community where he feels a positive police presence through sports can make a difference in stemming gang activity and keeping kids on the right path.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.