On a typical Tuesday afternoon, students and staff at Coupeville Elementary School might witness a rather unusual sight — fully uniformed Deputy Marshal Leif Haugen racing 8-year-old Colby Terry on the track. They will both confirm it’s Terry who usually wins.
Haugen is Terry’s “big” through the recently-formed “Bigs with Badges” program at Big Brothers Big Sisters. The national program is aimed at facilitating a stronger connection between communities and law enforcement personnel.
“One of [Coupeville law enforcement’s] goals they’re striving for is positive interaction with the community, so this fit, and that’s why they just jumped on it,” said Mary Johnson, who facilitates the program in Coupeville.
Haugen had been interested in participating in Big Brothers Big Sisters of Island County anyway, so he was eager to get involved when he heard about the Bigs with Badges program. There are six matches of this kind on the island: two in Oak Harbor and six in Coupeville.
“The two that are in our program here in Oak Harbor, both of those officers have been heavily involved with children in their past and they just care about making a difference in children’s lives and wanted to continue,” said Kathy Kaltenbach, who coordinates the program in Oak Harbor.
Mike Bailey, captain of the Oak Harbor Police Department, said he was interested in the opportunity because he had enjoyed coaching little league baseball when his kids were younger.
“For me, it’s refreshing to go and visit with the little,” Bailey said.
The bigs usually go to the school once a week for an hour to spend time with their little; all of the littles are either in elementary school or middle school. Haugen and Terry like to read books, play board games, play outside and Haugen even helped Terry with his science project recently. It’s usually Terry that does the reading. He loves to learn about planes and spacecraft; One day he hopes to be an astronaut.
“It’s nice to see him talk about the topics that he likes, because he’s pretty passionate about what he likes, and he’s very knowledgeable,” Haugen said.
It’s evident Terry enjoys his time with Haugen, especially when his eyes light up every time he sees him, said Dana Stone, counselor at the elementary school.
“My second most day to look forward to is Friday,” Terry said.
For some students, the bigs’ visits are a good incentive to finish their work, according to Kaltenbach. For Terry, Haugen said he’s noticed Terry “come out of his shell,” becoming more confident and talkative.
Stone said the school appreciates the impact of the program. Haugen said he’s covered topics like the importance of treating people well and proper behavior at school. Stone said she has been able to leave a note for Haugen asking him to talk about a specific issue Terry had that day.
Haugen said he benefits from the program as well. The visits are always a positive experience and a “refreshing break from standard police work.”
“It’s a great program to where you can bond with a student — as far as law enforcement goes, it’s just that good bond that shows that we’re humans too,” he said.
He also mentioned the weekly sprints on the track are keeping him in shape. Staff at Big Brothers Big Sisters said the program isn’t limited to police officers. The organization would welcome firefighters or emergency medical services personnel to volunteer with the program as well, and they hope to expand the program to the South End of the island.
The matching process is the same as for other volunteers in the organization — Bigs are vetted thoroughly and paired with littles that have similar interests and needs that can be addressed by the bigs’ skill set, Johnson and Kaltenbach said. The matches last one year after which the bigs and littles can decide if they want to continue. Terry said he’s sure he wants to continue.
“I get to have boy time with somebody,” he said. “I finally have someone to be free with.”