Updated: Sep 22, 2021
COVID-19 changed volunteers' approach for the 2020 season; the program, organized by law enforcement officers across the Metro, remains a special affair in building lasting relationships
OMAHA, Neb. —
With the summer drawing down and a new school year coming, Omaha's PACE volunteer sports program celebrated the end of the 2021 season after a year that changed how they played on the diamond. "(The kids) enjoy themselves and really enjoy the atmosphere," volunteer coach and Omaha Police deputy chief Greg Gonzalez said.
An entire summer of batting practice, ground balls and runs to home base culminated with the Champions Event weekend and the program's biggest pool of baseball players since its inception. "This year, we've had the most kids ever sign up for baseball; 496 kids just for baseball," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez was one of many officers donning a coach's hat for Police Athletics for Community Engagement at Christie Heights Park in South Omaha. COVID-19 in 2020 kept volunteers from sharing a more traditional season with players and their families. This year's efforts made the learning and practice time that much more special for OPD Lt. Ken Fox. "You always have to be very focused and intentional about making relationships with people," he said.
PACE said its investment in upgrading parks and facilities has helped bring in more kids from underrepresented communities. "In North Omaha, and in particular South (Omaha) baseball wasn't as popular over the past five, six years," Gonzalez said. "Some of the other sports have overshadowed baseball, so we're really proud — you can see the baseball field and the atmosphere."
Coaches, parents and neighborhood leaders said they hope the time and care given to the kids teaches them life lessons and leaves a strong connection with local police. "We try to teach our kids to be able to win with grace and also lose with grace," Fox said. "This is another way to serve and protect," Gonzalez said. "We want (the players) to know that outside a police uniform, we're here for them; that we can be a friend, a mentor, and those positive moments that we have with our youth are very important."