Things could have turned out very differently.
Had the sergeant chosen a different cul-de-sac on which to pull off and review paperwork or the kid been possessed of any less chutzpah (or even the basic social filter that would prevent most 12-year-old girls from just marching up to a cop on the street with such a guileless audacity), her young life would likely be very different today. In fact, if she had approached a lot of cops from the same department, the response would have been considerably different: polite but formal perhaps, or distant and dismissive. Some may have even been rude.
When Kelsey told Althea and me her story over dinner one night, I was humbled -- and more than a little bothered -- by the awareness that had I been the one she found and decided to try and befriend that day, my reaction would have probably left a hurt and very disappointed kid in its wake. I am a born introvert, not all that comfortable with kids that age to begin with. I can occasionally present a demeanor that bosses, peers and others have described as "gruff" (other words have been used about it, too, but let's just sum them all up with "gruff"). Despite the genuine chutzpah she displayed -- and still possesses today, but in a somewhat more refined form -- Kelsey was a kid on the bubble, and their meeting that day just might have saved her life.
In a way, Kelsey was one of those kids many of us get to know very well in our profession, often through regular calls to home and school to mediate domestic disputes, file runaway reports or manage "despondent/suicidal subject" calls. She could easily have been one of those kids who, stumbling over her own anger or chronically poor choices, becomes a frequent flyer at the local PD, her progression from adolescence to adulthood chronicled in a long series of booking photos. By her own account, the 12-year-old Kelsey of that day came packaged with plenty of the issues that routinely derail lives on the cusp of adolescence, sometimes tragically.
Kelsey's parents divorced very early in her life, with the aftermath following a familiar pattern: Dad's presence and influence were intermittent and distant. Mom was the overstressed and underequipped primary caregiver of the kids. Plenty of enmity existed between them, and together they didn't have much in the way of parenting skills. Apart they were worse. Kelsey's mom was angry and distrusted men, and she passed that distrust and pain on to her daughters. Kelsey's dad offered little to dispel this attitude. As their complicated lives demanded more and more of her parents' attention, Kelsey would soon need greater stability and support than they could supply.
Although outgoing and talkative, Kelsey was an anxious kid. She was diagnosed with depression in the 5th grade and, later, with ADHD. Intellectually bright, especially in the sciences and math, but also one of those kids who march to a beat of their own and rarely in sync with most other kids her age, Kelsey was about to enter what is an emotionally tough time for even the most even-keeled kid -- dreaded Middle School. It was probably not going to be the most comfortable time for a hyperactive, often sad, dreams-of-being-a-police-officer, preadolescent girl with poor familial support.
Had he chosen to review paper somewhere else that day, John and Kelsey likely would never have met. Tall and often outwardly gruff in his own way, John was a cop who marched to a beat of his own. His uncompromising demand for only top-quality work done in a timely manner had earned him a reputation and the nickname, "the Paper Nazi." But he was equally devoted to protecting and taking care of his officers and fellow supervisors -- political ramifications be damned! He was both loved and respected by those many cops who counted him a close personal friend and trusted sergeant, even as they rubbed their butt where his well-deserved kick might have been placed. Despite an initial gruff demeanor, he was actually a warm and compassionate cop who inspired respect in citizens, crime victims and suspects alike with his patience. Comfortable in his own skin and role, and sharply aware of his own imperfections, he practiced his profession with a sympathetic view. He was the perfect cop for the police-worshipping, 12-year-old chatterbox to strike up a conversation with. When he finally had to move on, he left Kelsey with his card and an invitation to talk more, which she would eagerly accept.
Understanding and appreciating the passion she showed as an aspiring cop -- and recognizing the deeper needs of a kid -- John took Kelsey under his wing. He introduced her to the world of law enforcement by inviting her deep into the police department, setting up ride-alongs for her with himself and with other officers, and taking the time to teach the eager kid from his expansive store of knowledge. His favorite assignment before being promoted had been as a crime scene investigator (It was in this role that Althea had first met John and become a devoted fan many years before, but that's a whole other story!), and he enthusiastically encouraged Kelsey, with her aptitude for the sciences, to consider pursuing forensic science. And, seeing the need she had for introductions to other like-minded young people, he paved the way for her early entry into the department's Police Explorer program.
They soon became fast friends, and Kelsey had found a mentor. But John knew she needed more than a mentor and, as they grew closer, he began to fill a deeper need in her life. For the first time, Kelsey found an adult who offered more than friendship and more than mentorship. She found someone who could offer strong, unwavering parenting. She had found her "Daddy John," and he invited her not just into the world of the police department, but into his home and family life.
John's presence in Kelsey's life did not ward off the tough times. The teen years are hard under the best of circumstances for almost every kid. The fact is, they are supposed to be hard. The emotional and hormonal challenges of those years from about the age of 12 extending into early adulthood are developmentally necessary. What John's presence did was help Kelsey survive them.
As happens with many kids entering adolescence, when Kelsey was 13, her depression deepened. Her home life was still shaky: Her relationship with her parents was sometimes volatile, and her anxiety was growing. Her grades began to drop, and she explored "cutting." She kept going into a deeper emotional darkness until she reached a place where she was even considering suicide. She texted this to a friend, an older boy she knew through Explorers, who called police.
She soon found herself hospitalized. Although hospitalization offered safety and structure to get through the crisis, and medication promised longer term stabilization of the depression that haunted her, to a young girl they just further added to the nagging self-doubt and sense of "otherness." Being 13 just makes the pain a little sharper.
But through it all, John was present, not just with his concern and support, but by revealing a part of himself to let her know she was not so different after all. ("They gave you Prozac? Good stuff. I wouldn't want to be without mine!") And his support never wavered; he stayed present through the tough middle and high school years, teaching, listening, encouraging and always pushing personal and academic achievement.
Kelsey's grades rebounded. Eventually she was named the top chemistry student in one of the most academically demanding high schools in Illinois, and she was accepted to an elite university where she now majors in forensic science and continues to dream of a future in law enforcement.
In the summer of 2009, John decided to hang it up. He had devoted many good years to law enforcement and wanted to take advantage of the cop's ability to retire young and devote time to his wife and kids, his neighbors, working on his hot rod and enjoying beers by his pool. And his pride and devotion to his "other" kid -- his Kelsey -- stayed just as strong. Perhaps one of the proudest legacies in a long list gathered through a lifetime in law enforcement.
I worked closely with John during his last years on the job before he retired, but I never knew of the relationship he had with Kelsey or how he had so influenced her life. I had seen her around the department, of course, and some of the other sergeants and officers who knew her better knew her story, but I was unaware. I might never have known if not for a tragedy.
On Feb. 13, 2010, the morning after celebrating his 53rd birthday and only six months into retirement, John suffered a massive heart attack and collapsed. His wife, also a police sergeant just a few months from retirement herself, tried valiantly to save him. Although John hung on for a few days more, on Feb. 17, he left this world. We only then learned of Kelsey and her relationship with John, how he had touched the life of a great kid with a few tough issues but a whole world of potential.
We are glad we did.
Do you ever wonder about the Power of One? The power each individual holds to affect another through a word, a look or an action. The power to give the gift of time. As cops, we know that our actions hold special power. A word of compassion or understanding, a supportive touch on the shoulder of someone who feels lost or scared or uncertain, or a few extra minutes to make someone feel important and you are going to treat them accordingly may hold greater power than we will ever know. Maybe it's taking the time to answer an innocuous or even silly question with patience and undivided attention that makes the difference.
Or maybe it's taking the time look at what needs really lie behind the excited words and questions of a bold and chatty 12-year-old girl.
Be safe, have fun, and may we always do good.