By Sergeant Ivan Parrish, Keokuk, Iowa, Police Department
n 2002 the Keokuk, Iowa, Police Department decided to take a proactive approach to the problem of juvenile delinquency in its community. As part of its crime prevention efforts, the department began looking for a program designed to reach troubled youths. Staff researched many of the national programs and found several to be beneficial and worthwhile—yet none seemed to fit exactly what the department had in mind. Ultimately, department leaders decided to create an original program, unique to the Keokuk Police Department, that would both achieve its goals and be financially feasible.
The department set out to focus its program on kids who had already been in trouble and were on probation, attempting to reach them in a positive way while allowing them to fulfill their court-ordered community service. The organization wanted a program that enabled these youths to do something productive and beneficial for others, as well. When planning was complete, the department named its creation the Guardian Angel Project. The Guardian Angel Project is an eight-week program that meets once a week for a two-hour period. The program pairs troubled youths with a positive role model from the community, including police officers, firefighters, teachers, preachers, youth ministers, and so forth. The kids and their role models work together to create a ceramic guardian angel figurine. They mold it, clean it up, and paint it throughout the eight-week period. Once the angel figurine is complete, the pairs deliver their creation to a sick child in the hospital (see figure 1).
This program provides several benefits to these troubled kids. It allows them to create something with their hands; they meet new and positive people; they build a positive relationship with the police; they gain a sense of pride and self-satisfaction for having done something kind for someone else; and they come away from the program feeling fortunate and thankful for their own lives. The department felt that if it could achieve any of these goals with the youths involved, the program would be a success.
Once the Guardian Angel Project had been conceived, the next obstacle was to recruit the help needed to make the program a reality. The Keokuk Police Department needed a ceramic instructor, volunteers from the community to serve as role models, and a facility in which to perform the ceramic work; had to convince the Lee County Juvenile Probation Office to participate in the project and help select the troubled kids; and required help in identifying children to receive the angels. Department representatives pitched the idea to the public while speaking to civic organizations and community groups. Immediately, volunteers began to pour in. In just a matter of weeks, the program had enlisted the services of a ceramic expert to instruct the program, and a diverse and talented group of role models volunteered their time to the project. The department reached out to Keokuk’s local school system for an art room, and the Keokuk Middle School was more than happy to donate their facilities for the program. The Lee County Probation Office also came on board and assisted in selecting the right kids for the program. The Children’s Hospital of Iowa at the University of Iowa in Iowa City agreed to serve as the program’s host facility. The hospital staff agreed to work closely with the program to ensure that it was a success and at the same time considerate of the sick children.
The first annual Guardian Angel Project began in August 2003. On the first night, participating youths were told about the program and what was expected from them. They were challenged to take the program seriously and to do their best work to create something beautiful for these very sick children. They were told that the children they were helping, as well as the children’s families, would more than likely treasure the angel figurines they created and would probably display them in a curio cabinet or on a mantle in their homes for years as a symbol of recovery or remembrance, depending on the outcome of their struggle. The youths responded exactly how the Keokuk Police Department had hoped they would: the kids went to work on their angels, they became committed to doing their best, and over the next eight weeks they all created beautiful figurines to deliver to the sick children.
Once all the angels were finished, the youths and their mentors visited the Children’s Hospital of Iowa. Along with the angels, the department also supplied custom-made shirts bearing the Guardian Angel Project logo for all in the program and for the sick children receiving the angels. The hospital staff had selected the children who would receive the angels upon the group’s visit, explaining that all the recipients had life-threatening illnesses. Some of the children were being treated for cancer of one type or another, some were waiting for organ transplants, and others were battling various illnesses. Out of consideration for the patients’ privacy, the group was asked not to inquire about the children’s medical condition unless they or their family volunteered the information. They found that most of the families openly shared their child’s condition and struggles with them. All of the children and their families were very pleased with their angels. In many of the rooms, it was not uncommon for families to meet the program’s youths and role models with hugs and tears of gratitude. As the group made its way from room to room, the troubled kids in the program were noticeably deeply touched by the experience and at times were themselves moved to tears out of compassion for the children suffering in the hospital—and by the fact that they had helped lift their spirits. They realized that these angels, which just eight weeks before had been nothing more than wet clay, had now become powerful symbols of hope and reassurance to these sick children and their families.
After the group had delivered all the angels, the department treated the youths and their role models to lunch at the Olive Garden, where everyone had an opportunity to reflect on the hospital visit. Many of the kids said that they had taken their lives for granted and that they realized they have a second chance. Such comments were a clear indicator to the department that the program was a success.
After the 2003 Guardian Angel Project had ended, the department became aware of another moving story resulting from the Guardian Angel Project’s visit to the Children’s Hospital of Iowa. One of the recipients of a guardian angel was a six-year old boy named Eric John Schonhoff. Unbeknownst to the project participants when they visited Eric’s room, Eric had been given only two weeks to live. He was suffering from a form of cancer called Burkitt’s lymphoma. Eric lost his battle with cancer on October 27, 2003, just nine days after he received his angel from the program. Shelly Schonhoff, Eric’s mother, advised the department that Eric had been so touched by his guardian angel that he had wrapped it up in Christmas wrapping paper, set it aside, and requested to be buried with his angel so he could take it to heaven with him and give it as a gift to God. His parents honored his request. Shelly Schonhoff shared this with the department in a letter addressed to all who participated in the Guardian Angel Project. This letter can be read in its entirety in the Eric Schonhoff area of the project’s Web site (www.guardianangelproject.com).
Because Eric’s reaction to his gift epitomized the spirit of the Guardian AngelProject, his story has since become a powerful part of the program, and the project has been dedicated to his memory for as long as it exists. Eric’s name has been added to the program’s badge logo, around the seal. Reaching troubled youth and lifting the spirits of desperately ill, hospital-bound children have become Eric’s legacy.
The Keokuk Police Department has enjoyed this successful program since 2003 and has made it a permanent part of its crime prevention efforts. While the program continues to grow and benefit the Keokuk community and the troubled youth for which it was designed, the department would like to see the program spread beyond Keokuk to other police departments and become part of their crime prevention efforts. Keokuk feels that the Guardian Angel Project achieves the highest standard of community-oriented policing on several levels:
- It creates a partnership with citizens as role models.
- It engages public and community organizations as partners to supply facilities, such as schools, local art studios, and children’s hospitals.
- It employs the theory that role models can have a positive impact on troubled youth.
- It boosts morale among officers who participate.
- Finally, it is a great program for a department’s public relations.
The Keokuk Police Department has made it easy for other departments to start their own Guardian Angel Project by creating a kit to guide them through the process of coordinating and maintaining the program. This kit includes a 48-page guidebook along with a DVD presentation about the program titled The Power of Compassion. The video presentation allows agencies to promote the program to the community, city councils, and department administrations; in a matter of minutes, viewers will know what the Guardian Angel Project is, what it is designed to do, how it operates, and what it has accomplished. They will also be able to see powerful footage of the teens and their role models delivering their angels to children at the Children’s Hospital of Iowa. To help defray the expense of creating these kits, the Keokuk Police Department asks for a $35 fee, which includes shipping charges.
Creative Paradise in Goddard, Kansas, created the molds for the angel figurines. The company has recently agreed to give the Guardian Angel Project the rights of ownership of this guardian angel figurine and the molds that create it. By owning these rights, no one else in the world can purchase or manufacture one of these angels or the molds without joining the Guardian Angel Project. The Keokuk Police Department acquired the rights to this figurine so that other departments will use this figurine in their programs in a uniform manner.
Agencies interested in participating are asked to sign an agreement to honor the essential elements of this crime prevention program. Keokuk is excited at the prospect of this program growing and touching other communities. The department believes that law enforcement agencies who implement it as a part of their regular crime prevention efforts will be richly blessed, just as Keokuk has been. Please visit the project’s Web site at www.guardianangelproject.com for more information.■