LEMOORE — The only open door on the Lemoore High School campus Thursday afternoon belonged to Youth Development Officer Jason Stephens.
Stephens will be named the first-ever Public Safety Individual of the Year at the 60th annual Lemoore Chamber of Commerce Installation and Awards Banquet next week.
The officer learned about the award when he recently got a call from his sergeant saying, “get down to the P.D. in 10 minutes.” Stephens racked his brain to remember if he had made any mistakes that would have garnered a stern meeting with his superior officers, but when the rest of the force began trickling in as well, he realized someone was probably going to be recognized with an award, a not uncommon occurrence.
He just didn’t realize it would be him.
“I was shocked,” Stephens said. “Obviously you don’t do this job for awards but it feels really nice to be recognized. It’s very humbling."
This will be the inaugural public safety award given by the Chamber of Commerce. After six decades in existence, the organization decided to add the honor to its list of already-existing awards, including Business, Organization and Person Of The Year.
“From our volunteer fire department to our police department, who is very community-oriented, to the crossing guards who are out there day-in and day-out to make sure our kids are safe, Lemoore has a lot of great support in the safety realm, so we wanted to extend and showcase that part of Lemoore,” said Amy Ward, CEO of the Lemoore Chamber of Commerce.
Stephens joined the force in 2015 after hitting a wall of dissatisfaction in the field of sales. Wanting to do something new, and having always been vaguely interested in law enforcement, he decided to join up.
“I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time coming to work,” he said. “It was the right decision.”
Stephens, a self-proclaimed “Navy brat,” moved around a lot as a kid, but when his family unpacked their boxes in Lemoore in the late ‘90s, they stayed unpacked and he considers Lemoore his hometown.
In 1999, he graduated from Lemoore High School, where he currently serves as YDO.
When the position became open, Stephens jumped at the opportunity, he says.
“I enjoy working with kids, first and foremost,” Stephens, who also coaches youth sports, said. “And I thought, ‘here’s another opportunity to work with kids and maybe be another mentor or resource for them to lean onto if they have issues.'”
In addition to being on the school’s working schedule which allows him to have more time at home with his own two children and wife, Stephens enjoys the being an on-campus linchpin for students. Stephens says the best part of his day is when a student comes to his office to talk about something they may not be able to share with their parents, teachers or even friends.
Coming into the force at a much later point that most officers, Stephens has other experience he can pull from to help him on the job. A former bartender, the art of listening to someone’s problems is chief among those skills.
“Being able to understand where they are because I was kind of a knucklehead at their age, but then being able to put the ‘dad hat’ back on and let them know about the stupid mistakes I made and give them advice on how not to repeat them,” he says. “I just look at [my time as a student] with different glasses.”
Stephens also works with a variety of community outreach clubs like YAP (Youth Assistance Program), which is similar to Scared Straight, G.R.I.P. (Gang Reduction Intervention Partnership), and Dude, Be Nice (self-explanatory).
The officer believes that meeting students in these programs reduces the chances he’ll have to meet them later in life while on patrol. He says he’d rather see an at-risk student eye-to-eye and talk out their problems rather than put them in handcuffs and arrest them.
It’s these and other programs that Stephens works with that earned him his Chamber of Commerce award.
“One of the things we liked from his interview was all the community policing he’s involved in,” said Ward. “From Reason for the Season to Presents on Patrol, you can just see that he is someone who truly believes in giving back to the community. He loves this community. Everything he does, you can tell he’s committed to making Lemoore a better place.”
In fact, it’s Presents on Patrol, a program that sees police gift underprivileged children with Christmas presents, that has given Stephens his most memorable moment on the force.
While responding to a call at a local big box store, Stephens met a child who had been detained after being caught shoplifting three toys of a popular cartoon character. Curious as to why someone would risk arrest for the action figures, Stephens picked the child’s brain a bit. Eventually opening up to Stephens, the child admitted that he had stolen the toys because otherwise, his younger brothers and sisters would have nothing under the tree on Christmas.
“Even talking about it, I get choked up a little,” said a visibly emotional Stephens. “The things you lose sight of and you don’t remember to appreciate in your day-to-day life just smacks you in the face sometimes when you talk to a person like that.”
Stephens was so moved that he worked with the store to not press charges and followed up with Soledad Perez, the officer that heads the Presents on Patrol program to get the youngster and his siblings presents for Christmas, including bicycles, skateboards, a tree and Christmas dinner.
“Most cops have the same cliché answer of ‘why do you do this job,’ which is ‘because I want to make a difference’ and that right there is exactly why I do this,” Stephens said. “I will never forget that for the rest of my life.”
The youngster is now a student at Lemoore High School and Stephens, who sees him most every day, still asks him how he and his family are doing. He said this as a student popped into his office to timidly ask if he had time to chat.
Which, of course, he did.
The 60th annual Lemoore Chamber of Commerce Installation and Awards Banquet is set for 6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 19, at the Tachi Palace & Casino Bingo Hall. Tickets are still available. Visit www.lemoorechamberofcommerce.com or call 559-924-6401 for more information.