'Hail Mary Project' aims to steer teens away from gang violence - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

'Hail Mary Project' aims to steer teens away from gang violence

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A Waterloo police officer is thinking out of the box to get kids off the streets.

Waterloo Police officer Justin Brandt, who's been with the department since 2009, is introducing a program for at-risk students in the community. Using football, the 12-week program aims to give these students purpose and direction. 

"There's so many negative connotations associated with the city of Waterloo," said Officer Brandt. "And this town is not bad at all. I've been born here. I've been raised here, and I'm back here. So when you go to other communities and they think 'Oh Waterloo? put the brakes on-find a way around.' We need to change that image, and I think this is the way to do it."

The project is called 'Hail Mary,' and much like the pass in football-these boys have the odds stacked against them. The at-risk sixth through eighth graders are growing up with violence, abuse and poverty all in the mix.

"We're seeing gang members as young as 12 and 13 years old," said Officer Brandt. "A couple years ago I got the idea to do something different. Change our emphasis from suppression as far as crime-putting the handcuffs on guys, putting them in jail and then relying on the justice system-to prevention. The reason was the impact. For gangs-it's the shootings, the cost to incarcerate. In Iowa, it's around $31-32,000 a year, but who's paying for that? The taxpayers. But on a bigger scale-the impact that has on the individual, the family, the victim, the neighborhood-the kids that are exposed to that."

Yellow caution tape and police lights often cast a dark image on the future of Waterloo's youth. But, Officer Brandt hopes this program can give them an opportunity to make the right move-using the all-American sport of football. Working with the Juvenile Court Services and the Waterloo School District,  the program will choose 30 at-risk students in grades 6th-8th. 

"It's something that brings brotherhood, comradery," said Officer Brandt. "It instills work ethic, discipline, team work, all the essential skill sets that you need in life to become successful."

But this program is more than just footwork and conditioning. Officer Brandt has teamed up with UNI's Center for Violence Prevention Director Alan Heisterkamp who will be coaching the boys into men. Conversations will include topics such as gender violence, respect, bullying, harassment, integrity, and social issues-all led by volunteer coaches. 

"These young men are at a crossroads of deciding which direction to go," said Heisterkamp. "Do I go down this path that supports education, healthy relationships, meaningful participation in the community or do I go down a road that may lead to potentially criminal behavior or actions that are not going to help them in the long run to be successful."

The program is set to launch January 5, 2018, and last for 12 weeks.  The at-risk kids, as young as eleven to just fourteen-years-old, will meet each Friday at the Cedar Valley Sports Plex after school. They'll train for two hours, and then sit down for dinner. Local restaurants, such as Rodney's Kitchen and Chick-fil-A have offered to provide dinner for these boys every Friday night. 

"They need positive role models," said Heistercamp. "Not perfect role models, because there are no perfect role models. But role models that have some lived experience, that can set their egos aside and really talk in real life terms to young boys. To not sugar-coat situations-to be authentic, to be real and to demonstrate what it really means to be a man."

Officer Brandt says he's been working on this project for eleven months, and he's excited to see it come to fruition. 

"The goal here is ultimately to reduce delinquency," said Officer Brandt. "To reduce the incarceration rate and recidivism. Give these kids opportunities that they otherwise would not have."

Currently, the program has six volunteers, but is looking for more mentors. If you have background coaching or playing football and are interested in being a mentor, reach out to Officer Brandt, brandtj@waterloopolice.com.

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