Helping create positive environments for young people that promote positive outcomes is the goal of the CMPD Summer Exposure Experience, aka SEE program.
Leading the curriculum he developed is Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Reginald Richardson.
“God kind of gave me a vision, and the goal is to be used as a vessel,” Richardson said. “You know, it’s humbling.”
Richardson’s vision is clear and focused: improve the lives of young people in Charlotte.
He said that youths who are surrounded by a variety of opportunities filled with positive encounters will ultimately have higher rates of success as they transition into adulthood.
The program is set at several different venues to ensure that these young people have access to adequate positive opportunities, but most days are spent on the grounds of Northside Baptist Church.
“I find that a lot of times, kids just want that outlet. They want to learn about the place around them, but it’s not a safe place all the time,” said Veronica Washington, community outreach coordinator at Northside Baptist Church.
Northside opened its doors to the scholars in the program to allow the young people to learn about the community, learn about themselves and have positive role models like Richardson and his fellow police officers.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what your past may be,” Washington said.
These young people come from many different backgrounds, cultures and lifestyles. But the issues they face are equally diverse. The SEE program enhances the sense of belonging, creating and strengthening relationships with peers, friends and mentors.
When Richardson became a police officer, he worked in the West Boulevard corridor. He wanted to somehow bridge the divide between police and the community.
“I started doing basketball skill development. Then it just branched off to just kind of taking the kids during breaks, taking kids camping, fishing, just doing all types of things,” Richardson said. “Seeing the enjoyment, it reminded me of myself when I was young.”
There is plenty of enjoyment for this group, with a full range of activities designed to engage them in intentional, productive and constructive ways while recognizing and enhancing their strengths.
“(The kids) can just be (themselves) without the pressures of what’s going on outside and without the distractions of what’s going on in the neighborhood that’s not so friendly sometimes,” Washington said.
Part of the mission is to have the team members understand that they have ownership in the community. Through community service, they worked at Second Harvest Food Bank to help bag over 300 lunches.
“Regardless of what you’ve done — whether you’ve been at Turning Point or you’ve had a previous arrest — you can still go back in your community and be a community leader,” Richardson said.
To help channel emotions and stressors, the young men also use music literacy to express themselves, whether it is taking in what they see on the news, in life or their neighborhood and integrating that into music as a coping skill.
Mike Wimberly is a 17-year-old rising senior. You can usually catch his beaming broad smile when he talks with the rest of the team. He’s the guy who, if someone is having a bad day, will be the first to wrap his arms around them and say it will be OK.
“Officer Richardson is a stand-up guy,” Wimberly said. “I’ve been able to talk to him about some of my struggles in the past, and he’s helped me make peace with everything that happened in the past.”
The program started this summer in the shadow of protests this spring following the death of George Floyd, and it aims to show the relationship between police and young Black men is not ignored or overlooked.
On one occasion, uniformed CMPD officers who are white were brought in. The open and honest dialogue went on for hours about police tactics and why these young men feel targeted by police and society.
“The goal is for the kids to see you can actually sit down with police officers and talk, and you actually get to see them — the person versus the uniform,” Richardson said. “And for officers to sit down and say ‘Hey, you know what? These are young men. These are our possible future leaders. I should look at them the same way I look at my kids and build a relationship.’”
There is a special feeling when you watch these young men grow and improve in a healthy environment with support from caring adults.
“You have no idea of the joy it brings me to be able to watch the kids,” Washington said. “I’ve seen a kid who’s been pretty shy, and they were out fishing the other day. It was his first time (he) ever put his hand on the rod but caught a little fish and so he was just amazed.”
Washington said a lot of times, youths don’t know what they’re capable of until they are put in a position to do something they’ve never done.
“When you see the opportunity for them to learn something they’ve never tried,” she said, “that gives us hope.”
The summer program concludes this week, but Richardson is already planning to continue it through the school year and bring these amazing young men together for a Saturday curriculum.
“I’m just humble,” Richardson said. “I’m happy to be part of what’s going on.”
With all the challenges facing our community, it is obvious that Richardson and this team will stay in place for as long as it takes to ensure a better future for the youth in the community.
If you have an inspiring story to share, email Kevin Campbell, public affairs manager at WSOC-TV/WAXN-TV/Telemundo Charlotte, at Kevin.Campbell@wsoctv.com.