When 12-year-old Connor O’Neill was a little boy, he said he was “scared” whenever he saw a police officer.
“When I saw their gun, I thought they were going to hurt me,” said Connor, of Darien.
Connor’s fear has completely gone away since he joined the Cops and Kids Adventure Program. The program is for sixth- to eighth-graders and is held at the Darien Depot on 25 Heights Road.
Janice Marzano; program director at the Depot, and Court Isaac; a Darien police officer, run the free, community program, which meets one Saturday a month from September to May. More than 20 children and about ten officers are in the program.
The Darien Police Department sponsors the program through the town.
Cops and kids encourages self confidence, team building, and leadership, said Darien Police Sergeant T.J. Moore, who is the program’s advisor.
Trips that the officers and children take include snow tubing at Powder Ridge in Middlefield and Sky Zone and Bowlmor in Norwalk.
Connor, who has been coming to the program for two years, said his favorite activity has been “zip-lining.”
He also said he likes participating in the many community service activities such as collecting toiletries at Stop & Shop.
“We set up at a table outside of the stores and give out flyers. People buy dish soap, toothbrushes, and bath soap and then donate them,” Connor said.
The items are sent to the human services pantry at Town Hall.
“We give them the items for those in need,” Connor said.
“I really like giving back,” he added.
On a recent Saturday, the group visited Empower Leadership Camp in Middletown, which offers outdoor activities.
Fourteen-year-old Oliver Swift of Darien, who has been with Cops and kids for three years, said his favorite all-time activity is “go carting,” at On Track Karting in Wallingford.
“It was fun,” he said.
Oliver also said he liked his visit to the Darien Police Department last year.
“We took a tour and we saw the cells, and the Bearcat [an armored vehicle],” Oliver said. “The cops took me for a ride around the block.”
Sometimes, the officers and children don’t travel anywhere but instead, meet at the Depot.
One activity they participate in there is sitting in a circle and asking questions. “We throw a ball and you can only speak when you have the ball in your hand,” Oliver said.
Tough topics that have come up about over the years in the circle include vaping (an electronic cigarette) and bullying.
The police officers don’t come to the program in uniform.
Connor said he has gotten so comfortable around police officers that he now finds it “easy” to speak to them, even when they are on duty.
“Last year, the cops were doing tree chopping on my street,” Connor said. “I went outside and the cop and I talked about how school is going.”
He said police officers have also given him advice on what to do about being bullied at school.
“Cops can really change the perspective of what to do in a situation,” Connor said.
The program is funded by the town of Darien. It began nine years ago when members of the police department and the Depot was awarded a grant through the State of Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management.
A $10,000 grant was given to the program for three years. However, the Police Department adopted the program as part of its annual budget.
The money pays for food and buses for trips.
Moore, who is the SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) advisor, said the Cops and kids program “bridges that gap and breaks down the communication barrier.”
Children learn that officers are not just “that person that arrests people,” Moore said. “It enables children to see cops in a different environment. They understand we are actually people.
“It’s being a dad, being a big brother, being a friend,” Moore added.
Isaac said he has seen firsthand how the program has changed children’s lives.
“I’ve seen these kids up at the high school who had been in the program. They come up and talk to me. They know me by name. It’s creating a friendship,” Isaac said. “Parents come up to us and tell us ‘you have changed my kid’s life.’ That’s what gets you in the heart.”