EAU CLAIRE, Mich. (WNDU) -- For the second year, a Cass County, Michigan sheriff’s deputy and her K-9 are crossing jurisdictions to be classroom fixtures at a Berrien County elementary school.
Dep. Tiffany Graves and Nellie the Bloodhound visit Kelly Severin's first grade class at Lybrook in Eau Claire, Mich. once per month as part of the Adopt-a-Cop program. The goal, says Severin, is to bridge the gap between children and law enforcement.
"There is a big hesitation toward law enforcement with my kids," explained Severin. "So many kids in our area know the ugly side of crime and all of that."
She envisioned a program, like Adopt-a-Cop, for a while. As luck would have it, she met Dep. Graves and K-9 Nellie at the Berrien County Youth Fair.
"I asked her if I could adopt her, and she got this funny look on her face and so did (Berrien County) Sheriff Bailey," recalled Severin.
Graves admitted she wasn't sure what Kelly meant initially, but the idea of being "adopted" by a class intrigued her.
"I thought it would be a great opportunity, yet I wasn’t sure how we would be received," admitted Graves.
In Fall 2016, Graves and Severin launched Adopt-a-Cop.
"First day walking in, the kids just stared at Dep. Graves and of course, there was a dog. There was a little bit of magic having Nellie but they just sat there. They were a little excited but they (were) standoffish," Severin recalled.
Graves wasn't surprised, based on how she feels the public perceives police. She talked about the occasions of walking into a restaurant.
“I think the thing that hurts my feelings is when I hear parents say, ‘You don’t behave yourself, that cop’s going to take you to jail,’ or ‘That cop's going to handcuff you,’ because it undoes everything we strive so hard to do, especially in our communities – and that’s draw our kids close to us – make sure they know the police are our friends, that you can come to us if you are lost or if you are scared – God forbid a crime or something tragic. We want that child to feel they can talk to us like they are our friend,” shared Graves.
After Graves’ first visit, Severin said her class warmed up to the Cass County deputies.
“Second visit, it was, ‘I love you’ and hugs,” Severin said. “It was magic.”
True, some of the magic might be attributable to the only police bloodhound in southwest Michigan, which specializes in searching for lost or missing people.
“I think things go a lot quicker with having Nellie because she bridges that gap,” Graves expressed.
Severin agreed, emphasizing Graves not only bridges the gap but fills a gap, for some children.
“They just learned, ‘Here’s a law enforcement officer who is just here for them,' and giving them that time. A lot of those kids don’t get that time for anybody,” said Severin.
By the end of the 2016-2017 school year, Graves and Severin’s class were magnetic.
“They were asking me to come live with them, telling me they love me, writing me cards. It was so heartwarming that I hope it happens for all police officers,” said Graves.
In late September 2017, Graves and Nellie visited Lybrook Elementary for the first time of the new school year. However, prior to the visit, Severin instructed her class to draw a police officer.
“Most of it was people being arrested, people in jail, people frowning. No good side except for the one little girl who drew a beautiful police officer,” described Severin. “These pictures tell me these kids are just learning what they view as law enforcement being the enemy.”
When Graves met the new group of students, she sensed they were intimidated.
“When I asked about the police, not one of them said anything about safety,” said Graves.
But when she whipped out a coloring activity and read to the children – with Nellie in tow, the class was effervescent and attentive.
“It’s almost hard not to get emotional when you’re doing that because it’s so heartwarming to know there’s people who really care, the kids are listening to you,” Graves admitted.
Toward the end of their visit, she and K-9 Nellie demonstrated for the class how they search for people. Nellie sniffed a shirt containing the scent of the person (Severin’s son) for whom she was looking. Graves directed Nellie to “go to work,” and within 30 seconds, Nellie identified Severin’s son, Brody, who hid behind a tree on school property. The children, looking onward, roared with cheers and applause for Nellie. But, they surprised Graves with fist-bumps, even hugs, when the visit ended.
“It’s so heartwarming that I get just one or two children that don’t hug just Nellie at the end, but they hug me. That just means my job is rewarding and that I’ve done what I came here for. That is the best feeling in the world,” said Dep. Graves.
Safety friends, expanding Adopt-a-Cop
Dep. Graves and K-9 Nellie aren’t the only visitors to Kelly Severin’s class during Adopt-a-Cop. Throughout the school year, Graves said she will bring various safety professionals. Similar to the previous year, the short list includes representatives from a fire department, the military, animal control and 911 dispatch.
In 2017, a Michigan State Trooper will be the newest Adopt-a-Cop ambassador for students at Merritt Elementary School in Niles. As Severin and Graves look to 2018, they expect at least three schools in Berrien and Cass Counties to adopt the program. Adopt-a-Cop is geared toward students in the first and second grades.