By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published September 21, 2017 | En Español
BROOKHAVEN—The Adopt-A-Cop ministry of Our Lady of the Assumption Church, launched in late February, is helping parishioners forge relationships with officers of the Brookhaven Police Department.
The ministry has grown by leaps and bounds as 144 parish families have adopted 54 employees of the department, which has 65 sworn police officers.
Anne Stephens, parish communications director, gives credit to the Holy Spirit for the program’s success.
Last winter Deacon Ed Patterson approached her about starting the ministry in support of Brookhaven officers after learning about it from a deacon friend.
“It sounded like a great idea. I was always raised to respect police,” said Stephens.
She didn’t expect to be deeply involved but accompanied the deacon to an inquiry meeting with Brookhaven Deputy Chief Juan Grullon and Sgt. Jake Kissel of the Support Services Division.
Stephens went in thinking the program would consist of sending notes of encouragement and praying for officers. She said the chief and sergeant had more in mind.
“They wanted OLA parishioners to get to know the men and women of the department. They wanted us to have a relationship with them, to build community,” said Stephens. “I was so impressed with both officers that when we got back into Deacon Ed’s car I told him, ‘I want to run this.’”
Stephens assured them they were not trying to evangelize but to express thanks.
“I was thinking it was going to be a hard sell,” she said.
Glimpsing “what their lives are like”
The parish ministry serves as the Brookhaven and Chamblee chapter of the national Adopt-A-Cop organization, started in 1998 by a police chaplain.
However, the parish has expanded on the program of prayer encouraged by the national group.
“We kind of went rogue,” joked Stephens.
She and co-leader Sarah Cash developed surveys for officers to complete about their hobbies, birthdays, favorite restaurants and foods, and interests.
The deputy chief supported that effort but warned her law enforcement officers are a private bunch and not to expect much. To the surprise of both sides, officers enjoyed filling out the surveys.
The community has learned much about those who protect them and the stress of the daily work.
“That has been the amazing part, getting a glimpse of what their lives are like,” said Stephens. “It’s hard on their families and on them.”
Many of the officers commute from outside the Brookhaven area and don’t spend a lot of time socially with co-workers. Brookhaven became a city with its own police force in 2012.
The Adopt-A-Cop ministry has given officers something in common as they show off notes of support and talk about eating out with their adoptive families.
“It’s bringing them together,” said Stephens.
Each participating family received a packet of information about ways to support their cop. The level of interaction depends on the officer’s level of comfort.
Although Kissel was very open to the program, he admitted an apprehension. He thought it would fail. The sergeant was surprised how officers reacted and of the willingness on both sides to build connection.
“To see that it’s going both ways, it’s shocking,” said Kissel. “I think it speaks well of Brookhaven. To have that bond with our citizens, it’s something I’ve never seen before.”
“They’re just real people”
While a parish ministry, each grade of OLA School and the preschool also adopted officers. The youth group is participating. Other ministries, including the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Loaves and Fishes, Stephen Ministry and Knights of Columbus, have lent support.
“The community has embraced the department. It’s really mind-boggling what this ministry has done,” said Stephens.
When people drop off baked goods or cards at the department, the officers come out to say hello.
“It’s like one big happy family. That’s what I want to put out there,” said Stephens.
A friend of Stephens wanted to participate but was fearful about what to say to a police officer.
“They’re just real people,” Stephens assured her.
“The Holy Spirit has moved through this program,” she said.
When you hug an officer, it’s impossible to miss the bulk of their bulletproof vests, noted Stephens.
“These people are here to serve and protect,” she said. “They have to go out every day for my benefit.”
An increasing number of emails from officers ask for prayers for them or loved ones, she said.
Over 20 volunteers from OLA assisted the department with its Sept. 9 5K to benefit Shop With a Badge. The holiday project takes local children shopping with a first responder to buy essentials and perhaps a toy or two.
It was the sergeant’s first time planning the race. The support of a corps of volunteers was invaluable. The race was such a success that officers will be able to spend more money on each participating child this year.
“Without Adopt-A-Cop, I would not have had that person to call,” Kissel said.
Because of the program the department is considering other ways to connect with community leaders, he said.
Officers are receiving so many cards that the city manager wants to make a book compiling them. It helps officers remember, “This is why you were called to wear this uniform,” he said.
“You’re our sheep”
The sergeant and Officer David Fikes visited the classroom of fifth-grade teacher Kathy Berg Sept. 14 to answer students’ questions. Fikes let the children visit with his K-9, a Belgian Malinois named Dano.
Kissel talked about storm recovery, police gadgets, and showed his bulletproof vest to students. He told them he had never had to use his gun in the line of duty.
A police officer’s job is really about presence, he told the class.
“We drive all day. That’s our job,” he said. “We’re out and about.”
“There’s a story about police officers and comparing them to sheep dogs,” Kissel told students. “You’re our sheep.”
Vijay Devassy, 10, enjoyed the visit to his class.
“I really like the Adopt-A-Cop organization,” said Vijay. Since the class adopted a cop, when he sees an officer out in public, “I try and say thank you,” he said.
Stephens wrote participating families to thank them for their generosity and creativity in adopting members of the police force. She shared the words of officers, including Cpl. Tom Martin and Officer Maria Jones.
“Your church has been so nice. In my 24 years of being in law enforcement I have never experienced the care and love you guys all show,” wrote Martin. “I enjoy working in Brookhaven and I have worked in some violent places in my career.”
“I believe I speak for all the men and women in blue when I say we appreciate people like you and your church. I appreciate great citizens who are concerned for our wellbeing, so we can make our communities all a safer place,” Jones said.
Sending over dinner
OLA parishioners Tom and Ashlyn Gioia adopted Maj. Brandon Gurley. The Gioias have two children Eleanor, 4, and Thomas, 2.
Ashlyn Gioia said they learned about Adopt-A-Cop through the parish bulletin and felt it was important because of recent news of tense relations between police and communities elsewhere, and the rise of anti-police sentiment generally.
“In Brookhaven, the police have always been wonderful. We’ve always been so appreciative of them,” she said. “We’re very excited to be a part of it.”
Gurley attended their son’s birthday party at the parish preschool.
“It was amazing,” said Gioia.
The ministry is about “really forming relationships,” she said. “That’s what a program like this is fostering.”
Gurley took his own children out shopping for gifts for Eleanor and Thomas.
The family surprised him with a birthday cake at the department recently.
Gurley works late nights as head of beat squads and so the family has sent dinner up to him on some evenings. Most importantly, they want Gurley to know they are thinking of him.
The new friendship helped Gioia learn about services of the department, such as extra patrols when homeowners are away. It has allowed Gioia the ability “to communicate with our neighbors about what the police department offers.”
During Tropical Storm Irma, Gurley worked from 5 a.m. on Sept. 11 until late afternoon on Sept. 12.
This is just one example of what goes on behind the scenes in protecting the public.
“I think they just go so above and beyond,” said Gioia.
Although Stephens has an adopted officer of her own, she considers Kissel a younger brother. He values their new friendship and knows he can count on the support of parishioners.
“If I were in need, OLA as a whole would lift me up,” he said.
Anne Stephens of Our Lady of the Assumption Church, Atlanta, is willing to talk to any parish interested in launching a similar program to the OLA Adopt-A-Cop program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.