Special Report: Cops, Kids & Disney

For four days last month, four dozen EVSC students and members of the Evansville Police Department and Vanderburgh County Sheriff's Office made memories at Disney World in Orlando, Florida as part of the Cops Connecting With Kids program. In an Eyewitness News special report, we document the group's journey and the relationships that were formed between police, educators and students.

Sometimes, the destination is just as important as the journey. On one day in late January, well before the opening bell at McGary Middle School, Evansville Police Chief Billy Bolin feels right at home.

"This room right here was my math class as a McGary student," Chief Bolin said.

Chief Bolin and other members of the police department and sheriff's office were spread across the room, kneeled over duffel bags. They added, subtracted and multiplied as jubilant students and their families filed in.

This day was a big one.

"You spend months preparing for something, building excitement and raising money. It's rewarding when you finally get here and see the excitement on the kid's faces," Chief Bolin said.

There were similar scenes at Cedar Hall at Glenwood Leadership Academy. After weeks and months of anticipation, a group of 48 students from three schools would board two busses and drive deep into the night before arriving at their final destination: Disney World.

"I know everybody is excited but not as excited as me because I'm the only one wearing light up Mickey Mouse shoes," said Evansville Police Sgt. Jason Cullum before the group boarded the bus.

As the group of 48 kids and the dozen chaperones departed Glenwood, they were treated like royalty. Kids flanked the front entrance. Other teachers donned pom-poms. Everyone cheered. The scene resembled a college football team leaving for the national championship. The group even received a police escort.

"It's my first time going to a big theme park," one student said.

"I get to see all the Disney characters and all the princesses. I'm looking forward to that," another student said.

In order to help fund the trip, members of the Vanderburgh County law enforcement community held fundraisers and solicited donations. Larry Bennett, the owner of Bennett Motors and Audubon Chrysler, provided the largest donation and also devoted numerous hours to the Cops Connecting With Kids program.

Spearheaded by members of the Tri-State law enforcement community, the program aims to help build relationships between law enforcement and the community it serves, in addition to making similar connections between kids and educators.

After driving for more than 15 hours, the group finally arrived at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Among those to greet them were the two Disney ambassadors.

"To the police officers of Evansville, Indiana, we want to say thank you for your generous efforts over the past three years in your community to experience the magic here at Walt Disney World," one of the ambassadors told the group. The ambassadors also presented special pins to the law enforcement and teacher chaperones of the group. The chaperones volunteered to go on the trip.
To understand what this trip means and how it even came to be, you have to go back four years. Glenwood Principal Tamara Skinner had an idea and an opportunity.
"We had a dream that we would take our kids to Disney World. We had a grant. We had the resources to do it so we made it happen," Skinner said. "We didn't have a lot of male teachers in our building so we reached out to the police officers that we knew to ask them if they would enjoy coming out on the trip."

It was a perfect fit, Sgt. Cullum said.

"What we found out really quickly during that trip was what we thought was going to be a life-changing experience for the kids was actually a life-changing experience for us too," Sgt. Cullum said. "When we got back, we realized the relationships that we had built on that trip were going to be crucial for our development as police officers and the kids development as young adults."

Thus, the Cops Connecting With Kids Program was born. What started as 26 students from a single school has ballooned into 48 kids from three schools. A four day stay at Disney, which included trips to Hollywood Studios, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom, costs an estimated $60,000, Sgt. Cullum said. The group also pays for hotel rooms for the students.

"To be able to do this for three years for a total of 118 kids that the law enforcement community has brought here just doesn't happen without being in a great city like Evansville," Sgt. Cullum said.

For many of the kids, this might be their only trip to Disney in their lifetime, Skinner said.

"When you get to bring children that you know have never had this opportunity and this might be their only time here, it's just really special," Skinner said.

The kids took risks and tried new things. Unintimidated, the kids hopped on roller coasters and immediately hopped in line for a second trip. They took in shows and performances and delved into new cultures.

Above all else, however, the kids grew to know police officers, sheriff's deputies, principals and teachers in a different light.

"[Police officers] help save the community in different ways," Glenwood student Devontae Johnson said.

Johnson's new friend, Officer Phil Smith, was smiling ear-to-ear.

"It's hard to wipe the smile off of my face. It makes you feel real good to hear something like that," Smith said.

To fully understand the gravity and the impact of the program, look no further than the budding friendship between Officer Smith and Johnson. The two met on the trip.

"[I like that] he's big and strong and he's a police officer," Johnson said.

"When we first came into the schools, the kids called us by the word 'cop.' Here, four years later, I walk into the same building and every kid in there says, 'hey, it's Mr. Phil,'" Smith said. "We're on a first name basis. I want them to know when they grow up, if they ever need me, they can call on me."

Sgt. Cullum said the group is already planning on next year's trip. This time around, program organizers are arranging sponsorships for students. The cost of the sponsorship, estimated to be around $900, will cover transportation, all meals, lodging, luggage, a backpack, shirts, jacket and park admission. Any interested in sponsoring a student can find more information by reaching out to Sgt. Cullum at jcullum@evansvillepolice.com
 


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