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WINTER 2013

Committed for life

Through sports clinics and school assemblies, Neil Stratton ’65, M.P.A. ’71 is dedicating his retirement to helping young people from less than ideal circumstances make positive choices.

PHOTO STEPHANIE SECREST

Kops for Kids founder Neil Stratton steers young people away from trouble

BY CHERIE VARGAS ’12

Thirty-two years of service to Contra Costa County wasn’t enough for retired Walnut Creek Police Officer Neil Stratton ’65, M.P.A. ’71. After climbing his way up the ranks in the police department, Stratton retired as captain in 1995, but he was still determined to play a pivotal role in his community.

Realizing the high demand in the county for programs helping young people, ages 11 to 18, who are on the verge of juvenile delinquency, Stratton focused his efforts on empowering the next generation of adults. A background in sports and recreation guided Stratton as he developed plans for Contra Costa Kops for Kids, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of children through drug prevention seminars, mentoring programs and physical education.

“It’s a rewarding experience to know you positively influenced a young person in some way,” Stratton said. “It makes it all worth it.”

Stratton doesn’t always get to personally know the kids he helps, but it’s clear his organization is meeting its objectives, as evidenced by one recent email he received from a teacher thanking him for his service to Contra Costa.

While passing out crisis prevention cards to a classroom full of students during a Positive Mental Attitude Seminar and Sports Clinic, Stratton was unaware that his advice would help save a young life.

The teacher’s email thanked Stratton for his words of wisdom to a classroom that included a teenager who had been considering suicide.

“Here’s a kid who doesn’t have a clue,” says Stratton about the troubled teen. “All he can think of to do is slit his wrists.” With Stratton’s advice and help from resources printed on the crisis prevention card he had passed out, Stratton says: “(The student) realized he had alternatives.”

Stratton and Kops for Kids volunteers distributed the wallet-sized cards, which contain telephone numbers to crisis hotlines that operate 24/7, to approximately 5,000 students in Contra Costa last year.

As Kops for Kids president, Stratton also creates partnerships with school districts, police departments, the county sheriff’s office and community-based organizations to serve youth in the county, the majority of whom live in neighborhoods with the area’s highest poverty and crime rates.

Seventeen years after founding the nonprofit organization, plus much hard work and dedication, Stratton has seen its positive effect on children throughout the county.

“(These programs) help youth get a handle on who they are, who they want to be and what they want to do and the importance of maintaining a positive mental attitude,” he says. “People with a positive mental attitude have a better chance to take advantage of opportunities that come their way.”

Composed of active and retired law enforcement officers and firefighters, Kops for Kids reached some 5,000 young people during the 2011-12 school year, and the goal is to reach more annually, says Jim Hatchell, a retired police officer and Kops for Kids volunteer.

The growing number of program participants over the years demonstrates the organization’s progress and effectiveness, Hatchell says.

“(The organization) is something I’ve dreamed about in the county, since I was a police officer,” Hatchell says. “But Neil has always been the driving force behind it all.”

Stratton, along with a group of volunteers, created and incorporated the organization, formerly known as the Contra Costa Police Athletic Association, to organize the 1998 California Police Summer Games. The Games drew about 5,000 police officers statewide, who competed in nearly 70 sports to raise money for youth programs in the county.

Proceeds from the event allowed the organization to establish partnerships within the community, initiate additional fundraisers and pay for programs, including the Kops for Kids Youth Mentoring Program and the Positive Mental Attitudes Seminars and Sport Clinics, which Stratton often teaches.

His zeal for helping and educating youth, however, came long before the start of Kops for Kids. In addition to serving in law enforcement, Stratton also taught at several institutions of higher education, including Diablo Valley College, Golden Gate University, Los Medanos College and San Jose State University. Stratton wrapped up his teaching career at his alma mater where he taught in the Department of Criminal Justice Administration for nearly 20 years.

Since graduating from then-Cal State Hayward with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in public administration, Stratton has made his community a priority, with a focus on youth outreach.

The former police captain says he couldn’t imagine a more rewarding retirement and jokingly credits his wife for having a say in how he spent his days after he left the Walnut Creek Police Department.

“When I retired my wife told me, ‘Hey, don’t you stay home and bother me. You find something to do.’ So, I found something to do,” Stratton says, a wide smile spreading across his face.

“The schools are hard-pressed because of a loss of funding,” said Stratton. “If the organization can make a difference and improve the lives of youth, we’re happy to be of service.”

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