By: Lolita Harper
Christina Lopez straggled into a classroom last fall where she was to spend the next 10 weeks to complete the terms of her juvenile probation. She stood with her arms crossed and gave very little eye contact to any of the instructors. If she gazed in the direction of one of the deputies at the Fontana Station’s juvenile mentoring program, it was to roll her eyes at their presumably empty talk.
By the end of the 10 weeks 15-year-old Christina still did not want to lift her gaze to deputies but this time it was because she was crying – sad the Fontana Station A.C.T.S. juvenile mentoring program was over for her.
Finizia Barberi, a Fontana Station deputy who volunteers for the station’s intervention program, bonded with Christina, who is a self-admitted local gang member. Christina texts Barberi on occasion and gives her status reports. She tells Barberi she left the gang lifestyle and wants to better herself by focusing on school.
“I get so much gratification when I see a kid come in with a bad attitude, and a bad rapport with people, and then by the end of the 10 weeks they are crying because they don’t want the program to be over,” Barberi said.
The Fontana Station developed the A.C.T.S. program – which stands for attitude, choices, teamwork and success – to motivate local “at-risk” students between the ages of 13 and 17. The station developed this juvenile mentoring program designed to assist students who are faced with relentless, negative peer pressure; violence and gang activity; and frequent exposure to drugs. A.C.T.S. is designed to teach students to approach life with the correct attitude, make solid choices, and work together as a team to achieve success.
The A.C.T.S. Program is coordinated by Deputy Chris Stowell, and it teaches students to focus on a positive attitude, to make proper choices, to feel strength and comfort in the team, and not to worry about their own popularity or individuality. For the Fontana Station deputies who work within this program, the passion, conviction and dedication they give while mentoring is anything but an act.
“Making the positive connections with these kids is definitely a paradigm shift in my mind, coming off patrol,” said Dep. Chris Stowell, the ACTS Program director. “From the patrol mindset, you are usually dealing with these kids in response to vandalism or an incorrigible juvenile call but this program helps us get on the other side. You understand that a lot of these kids come from some seriously troubled homes and have no other outlet for their emotions.”
The A.C.T.S. program began in 2014 and Stowell inherited it shortly after. Stowell worked to fine-tune it and made it a point to model the program after the Sheriff’s Academy. The students who had completed the program gave feedback and asked for more discipline, Stowell said. They craved structure and regulation. Stowell said he has found a successful framework for the program but is always looking to improve when needed.
The Fontana Sheriff’s Station partners with the Colton Unified School District to provides class credits, attendance make-up, work experience credits, and homework replacement for participating students. Parents and guardians of the A.C.T.S. participants are afforded the opportunity to participate in a curriculum titled, “The Parent Project.” The Parent Project aims to equip parents with the skills necessary to successfully engage their children and to guide them toward positive and rewarding life decisions.
Fontana Station Lt. Dave Caddel is a big supporter of the program and is proud of the impact it’s had on the community they serve. And although the program – its structure and curriculum – is credited for the successes of many children, it is empty without the people who make it happen.
“It is our deputies, and other volunteers, who make this program what it is,” Caddel said. “Their passion for these kids – and the betterment of the community – is what allows success stories to happen.”
The program helps students achieve success by having them complete detailed, well defined assignments. The tactical staff is comprised of local law enforcement officers who clearly define student expectations at the start of each class session. These expectations are consistently reinforced throughout the entire program. Students are taught they have control of their attitudes, actions and choices, and are held accountable for them throughout the program.
"This program couldn’t exist if it weren’t for all the volunteer hours and all the guest instructors,” said Stowell, who estimated at least 360 hours of total volunteer hours are given for one, successful 10-week program.
Barberi said she can relate to many of the children who come through the A.C.T.S. program because she also grew up in a lower-income, “rough” neighborhood in the Bronx, New York. She was raised by Italian, immigrant parents who worked around the clock just to make ends meet. English was Barberi’s second language and she had to learn to navigate school, the neighborhood and all life’s challenges.
“It was a struggle just to try and better yourself,” Barberi said. “There are so many things stacked against you – poverty, mediocre education, immigrant parents – in ghetto of Brooklyn. I would have loved to have a program like A.C.T.S. when I was growing up.”
The A.C.T.S. program began in 2014 with seven students from Bloomington High School. In the last session the program enrolled 44 students and successfully graduated 25 from six different schools. Since the program’s inception there have been seven classes with more than 150 graduates. A.C.T.S. graduates have a 100% high school graduation rate among students eligible for graduation.
The A.C.T.S. program also hosts an athletic competition during its 10-week duration, in which students compete against similar programs in the area, and with local Explorer Posts. The event includes a resource fair that invites members of the Armed Forces as well as local trade schools and colleges, so that not only students but community-members too may benefit from this valuable information.
The program has received support from the United States military. Members from various branches have volunteered time to provide instruction to the students. The United States Navy Seals and SWCC Scout Team have invited A.C.T.S. program students to attend a physical training session modeled after the Navy Seals training in Coronado, California.
Whether the graduating students go on to a career in law enforcement or a career in another discipline, they leave the program with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and respect for authority.
Many of the graduating students are so attached to the A.C.T.S. program, they offer to volunteer for future class sessions. Stowell has a core group of about 10 graduates who come back and help him. Christina is one of those kids who does not want to let go of what the A.C.T.S. program offered her.
“She wants us to be her new family,” Stowell said. “She has the self-awareness that it would be very easy to go back to her old lifestyle without a constant, positive influence around her.”
*Lt. Dave Caddel contributed to this story.