West View Elementary Bigs in Blue program a hit
Five uniformed police officers from West View and a K9 unit from Ross responded to a calling at West View Elementary School at noon Jan. 10.
The officers, armed with nothing but pizzas and good cheer, arrived for their weekly Bigs in Blue adventure, which pairs police officers with at-risk elementary school students for one-on-one mentoring and fun. On this day, the policemen were bringing lunch and introducing their third-grade partners to Ross Township canine officer Cezar.
The boys were visibly excited, and conducted their own interrogation of sorts.
“Does Cezar wear a bullet-proof vest?” one boy asked.
“Can he find people?” questioned another.
“Can he do flips? Does he eat cake?”
The Bigs in Blue program — offered through Big Brothers Big Sisters — “allows police officers to become friends and mentors to students who may have academic or social needs and could use another connection, another role model in the community,” school counselor John Zawalnicki said.
West View Elementary School and the West View police department were the first in Western Pennsylvania to take part in the program since it was launched nationwide in November 2016.
Their initial meeting was this past October.
Since then, police Chief Bruce Fromiak, Lt. Matt Holland, Detective Stephen Ganster, Officer Matt Pavlecic, and Patrolman Chad Green from the West View Police Station have come to the school each week to share an hour-long lunch period with their student partners. They have pizza parties, read books together, engage in activities, play board games and sports, help with homework, or just chat about their day.
“It's awesome,” said Noah Wyse, 8. “Chief Fromlak is so nice. I like playing games with him.”
“It's fun! I like playing football outside the best,” said Montana Dawson, 9.
Maggie Giel, program manager at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh, finds the program rewarding.
“The boys just light up when they walk in the room and see the officers waiting for them. They love that the police officers can come to see them. By being in this program, they understand that they're special,” she said.
The officers comprise nearly half the police department in West View, and the enthusiasm is spreading.
Ross Patrolman Bruce Chuberko — who brought his canine partner, Cezar — is officially joining Bigs in Blue next week. Two of his fellow Ross police officers are joining this month, as well. They will be partnered with additional students at West View Elementary, since a portion of the student body resides in Ross Township.
“It's a good cause and I want to do my part,” Chuberko said.
Just three months into the program, the police officers and school staff already are noticing positive results. “None of these kids have missed a single day of school since we started the program,” Zawalnicki said. “Tardiness has declined. The quieter kids are now interacting more and initiating conversations.”
Fromlak has seen the improvement, too. “Every week, we see things get better and better. Better attitude, more confidence. This is an investment.”
The students — each of whom was recommendeded to take part in the program on the suggestion of teachers and with the approval of their parents — will participate from third through sixth grade. “But we hope it doesn't end there,” said Fromlak. “We hope these kids can always come back to us if they need help, assistance, guidance or anything at all.”
Laurie Rees is a Tribune-Review contributor.