LEMOORE — Last week at the Lemoore City Council meeting, the council approved a financial contribution to support the Big Brothers Big Sister’s Bigs in Blue program.

Central Valley Executive Director Diane Phakonekham said the Bigs in Blue program started in the Valley about three years ago in Madera where there was a problem with kids getting into trouble and the schools and Madera Probation Department realized they needed to do something.

The program is now growing and expanding into Fresno, Sanger, Hanford, Lemoore and Selma communities by working with local law enforcement departments. Phakonekham said programs are popping up all over the country after the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America president issued a nationwide call to action after seeing increasing hostility between the public and law enforcement.

The goal of Bigs in Blue is to offer one-on-one mentoring that connects youth with police in their community to build strong, trusting and lasting relationships that help build stronger bonds between law enforcement and the families they serve. The officers in the program commit to visiting their “littles” once a week during lunch time at their schools for a year.

Phakonekham said the program will look for people with caring hearts who are willing to just be a friend to these kids, listen to their problems and guide them. She said most of the kids picked are considered “at-risk” and are having trouble either at school or at home.

“Everyone needs someone in their life,” Phakonekham said, adding the program tries to match the kids with a mentor they can form a bond with.

Phakonekham said the hardest part is recruiting the right mentor for a child. She said parents and teachers are interviewed and the kids aren’t just partnered with any officer, they are assessed before starting the program to figure out their likes and interests and are matched with one of the mentors who shares similar interests.

Mitzi Torres, Bigs in Blue program coordinator for Tulare and Kings Counties, said the kids are referred to the program by the school and they are hoping to get at least 10 kids involved, if not more.

Not just strictly law enforcement officers are considered for the mentoring positions, Phakonekham said. She said firefighters, veterans, anybody who works to support law enforcement or anyone who could be considered a “hero” can be a mentor.

Lemoore Mayor Ray Madrigal was instrumental to bringing the High School Bigs program — where high school students are mentors to younger elementary students — to Lemoore this year. He said when he met Phakonekham a few years ago and she told him all about the program, he knew he wanted a Big Brothers Big Sisters program in the city.

Madrigal said the Bigs in Blue program aligns perfectly with the city’s goals of community-oriented policing. He said the police department has many dedicated employees who are willing to take the time to help the kids in the community because they know change starts with the kids and spreads to the families and the rest of the community.

“[Lemoore Police Chief] Darrell Smith and his leadership staff have done a great job and developed a culture of creating partnerships throughout the community,” Madrigal said.

Phakonekham’s passion for all the programs is what makes everything work, said Madrigal, and he's "grateful and thankful" the city's partnership exists with the organization. He said the sooner the program can start, the better.

Phakonekham said the kids in the program are usually in first through fifth grades. She said the program is still in the beginning stages, but she estimates the program to start at the end of September or early October.

The council agreed to give a one-time $7,000 contribution to the program. The money comes from city realignment funds, which are provided by the state to local police agencies to be used in “efforts to promote and enhance community relations between the public and the police.”

Start-up costs for the implementation of the program are roughly $20,000. Lemoore Union High School and Elementary School districts had already raised around $13,000 and the city gave the program the extra money it needed to get started.

The reporter can be reached at 583-2423 or jzavala@hanfordsentinel.com

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