Having grown up poor on the south side of Merced, Nick Navarette knows the risks young children face.
He has already made some of the choices they’ll have to make. He became a father at 16, and said without mentors and role models, it would have been easy to get involved in destructive activities.
At 27, Navarette is a UC Merced police officer, a father of five and a mentor to almost 200 elementary school children who call him Officer Nick.
When he joined the university’s police force in January, the chief asked him to devise an outreach plan. He and his police partner Maria Botwright chose a mentoring program to help students on the traditionally low-income south side of Merced. They enlisted UC Merced students to be Trailblazers, helping fourth- and fifth-graders at Reyes Elementary School with homework, activities and by being role models.
Kids are looking for the right relationships, he said. We want them to choose this one.
Some of the Reyes children Navarette first approached didn’t know what a university was. The first time the Trailblazers invited a group of children out to tour the campus and have pizza with them, some of the kids were excited just to get to drink a soda or eat as much as they wanted.
Now the tours are held once a month, and all the kids who come to campus get to be Junior Bobcats, with their own ID cards.
After holding a drive to gather school supplies this summer, Navarette and the Trailblazers held a party at a community park and, with other social services organizations, gave out 344 backpacks stuffed with supplies. But more than 600 kids showed up. Their backpacks are being filled, too.
Navarette said the 26 UC Merced Trailblazers spend lunch hours at Reyes playing games and doing activities with the children, then go back after school for T-Birds, a homework clinic.
We’re taking little seeds and planting them in fertile ground, Navarette said. They’re going to grow into big, strong trees.
Plans are to expand the program into all of Merced County’s elementaries, and even include some parenting classes and other activities, as well.
Freshman Stacy Vang, 19, of Fresno, a human biology major, said she had always wanted to work with kids, and hopes to become a pediatrician. After her first Trailblazers meeting, she was hooked. Now she and the other mentors play dodgeball, soccer and basketball with the Reyes children every day. The children, she said, also want to learn how to play chess, and soon they’ll be holding Friday sports tournaments, too.
We can be such a positive influence on young kids, she said. We’re trying to show these children a path that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. I hope they have a lot of fun and realize they can do anything if they put their time and determination into it.
I just really want the kids to learn that they can change the world.