Growing up, my parents made it a priority for our family to volunteer and support our community. I remember waking up, putting on our matching t-shirts, and braving cold October mornings to set up for an early Race for the Cure. Every year, we did this with tired eyes and big smiles, happy to be part of the larger community that understood what it felt like to have loved ones who had battled cancer. The sometimes quiet and sometimes incredibly loud moments, laughing and coming together with total strangers, always left me feeling proud, happy, and supported. This tradition continued from elementary school through adulthood, is one that my husband has now adopted, and one we plan on continuing with our future family.
In retrospect, it is not surprising that as an adult, my career path gravitated towards helping others, ultimately landing at the Washington D.C. Police Foundation. The Foundation supports the many outreach and youth programming efforts of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department. I work with compassionate law enforcement officers to build a brighter future for city youth and a safer city for everyone. It is rewarding to watch officers and youth program participants learn from one another and establish a greater understanding of law enforcement’s role in the community. The officers invest in their students, judging science fairs, helping with homework, and simply become a sounding board when they have a bad day. The warmth and enthusiasm they exude are why I have been happily building our programs and operations for almost eight years now.
Through our outreach, the Foundation serves over 13,000 youth annually, connecting officer mentors with families throughout the city. Fostering a volunteer spirit by giving back locally is an essential theme in all our programs. We want each child to know that they can make a positive change in their homes and communities. A few years ago, our 5th grade Junior Cadet program spent a very rainy day beautifying the front garden at one elementary school. Although the weather was far from ideal, the Cadets’ excitement kept them out all day planting flowers and vegetables. They were proud of what they accomplished, cheered on by one of our favorite officer mentors, Keith Williams. He would quietly guide them as they planted seeds too close, teaching them so they could eventually share their newly acquired skills with fellow classmates. Everyone had fun that day, laughing in the rain and creating new memories. The Cadets were proud of their garden, showing it to their families and friends throughout the year.
In March of 2020, programs were put on hold as the pandemic moved throughout the country. Officer Williams and his colleagues continued to work long hours patrolling the city and keeping everyone around them safe. In June of 2020, I received the devastating phone call that Officer Williams had passed away from COVID-19. I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach followed by days of trying to make sense of the sudden loss. Officer William’s impact will not be forgotten; every day, he gave back to the community by working with our students and spreading kindness. As we reach the anniversary of his passing, we plan to have a ceremony in the same garden he worked in with the Junior Cadets.
As the summer continued and youth programming resumed, we knew the pandemic required a modified approach. With the help of our partners, we found ways to continue connecting officers to the communities they serve.
Parents with Preparedness’s Lucky® the Preparedness Dog books have been an excellent tool in teaching youth some essential lessons throughout the pandemic. The PWP team dedicated the first set of Lucky books to honor Officer Williams and his career serving the community. While initially used for virtual learning, we now can hold distanced gatherings in parks so that youth can meet and read with an officer. Not only are the officers reading to youth, but we encourage them to then give back by reading to younger siblings. By sharing their experiences and learned lessons with others, the impact continues.
Some of our most successful initiatives used the arts to support the community in a meaningful way. Students created murals at police stations, beautified local parks, and soon will be welding recovered weapons into abstract art. These projects had little cost, took place outside, and most importantly, built positive relationships between officer mentors and student participants. Not only did the students enjoy being creative and expressing themselves, but their work was visible and permanent within their neighborhoods. They now walk by their artwork regularly, taking pride in the positive change they created, inspired to play a more active role within their community.
Over the last year, we have been overwhelmed by letters and drawings received in appreciation of first responders. In January alone, over 500 letters were delivered from families and individuals throughout the country, thanking the D.C. police for protecting the Capitol building. Drawing a picture or making a hand-written card may seem like a small act, but it can significantly impact overall morale. Letter writing also opens a critical dialogue with children about how they feel about the world around them. While we have always encouraged local youth to draw pictures and write cards to officers, the kind words shared throughout the pandemic felt more needed than ever before.
When I reflect on the last year, I am so appreciative of my role within the Foundation. All the chaos of the pandemic was matched by the amount of good experienced each day. I challenge everyone to channel the passion and drive of our officers and youth. Take some time to volunteer and give back with your children; it will instill confidence and give them a creative outlet. Find a cause that matters not only to you but to them; it may be something they follow and support for years to come. Those small moments volunteering together are the ones they will remember throughout their life. Creating the next generation of compassionate leaders is how we make this world a better place. ◙
About Rebecca Schwartz
Rebecca Schwartz has been with the Washington D.C. Police Foundation since 2013 and is currently the Director of Development & Operations. She works collaboratively with the Washington Metropolitan Police Department to develop and execute meaningful programs that impact youth and community.
Her focus is on building partnerships that support a variety of initiatives with the shared goal of making the city a safer place for everyone to live, work and visit. Prior to her career at the Foundation, she worked in business development for an operational and tactical distributor for the military and government. There, she developed custom solutions for Navy Seabees at a national level. She is actively involved with the Foundations Section of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, where she organizes and supports discussions on Police Foundations nationally.
Rebecca is originally from Upstate New York, where she studied Business Administration and Communications at the State University of New York at Geneseo.