Answering the Call when Children Need Help
Sheriff’s deputies may be tough, but when it comes to helping kids, most have a soft side. That is especially true when it comes to the 999 for Kids program — its name a reference to the “officer needs help” 999 radio code — through which LASD officers and personnel have responded in force to the call to help children for nearly three decades now.
“This is one of the only programs of its kind,” says 24-year LASD veteran and Santa Clarita Valley Station Captain Roosevelt Johnson, program chair of 999 for Kids. “It started in 1985 as a partnership between the Sheriff’s Department and the Department of Children and Family Services. It caters to kids in their special needs programs — kids who are medically fragile, have been removed from abusive environments and are disabled.”
The program helps about 1,000 children per year by providing specialized equipment and services, including sport wheelchairs, computers, special education classes, and medically oriented toys and games. A summer camp experience is also provided for children who are deaf, blind or have medical issues, and who otherwise would not be able to participate in such quintessential childhood activities.
Johnson got involved with 999 for Kids in 2002 while assigned to Training Bureau, which organizes the program’s most elaborate annual event for children in the program, the Christmas party. (Last year’s event included a petting zoo, train rides and a snow machine to create a winter wonderland for the 900 children in attendance.)
“Just the fact that we can do something, and play a small part in making these kids’ lives better, is really rewarding,” says Johnson.
Because of the unique and customized nature of the needs of children helped by 999 for Kids, which are too expensive to be paid for out of the County budget, fundraising is an ongoing challenge. For example, previous donations have included a special bed for a boy whose weight and medical conditions rendered him nonambulatory and unable to sleep on a regular bed, and a Braille machine for a legally blind girl that enabled her to efficiently communicate and read at home and at school, among many other donations aimed at helping children function in their daily lives.
“The more money we raise, the more we can provide for special equipment, camps and activities for the kids in the program,” says Johnson. “It’s always a challenge, especially with the economy being what it is, but we’ve found that people are extremely generous with their money and their time, and that has helped us be successful.”
So dedicated are the many deputies and law enforcement colleagues to the 999 for Kids cause that they often support the program on their own time, holding fundraising events such as the annual 26-mile team relay swim from Catalina Island to Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, which eight swimmers from LASD, LAPD and the Port Police completed for the fifth time this August 17.
“A lot of it is voluntary; there’s no pressure whatsoever on units to raise money,” Johnson says, confirming officers’ commitment to the program’s mission.
“Many volunteers with the program have been involved for years, with hundreds mobilizing during the holidays to put on the annual Christmas party,” he says. “To see the smile on the kids’ faces when they get a gift — because most of them wouldn’t get a gift otherwise — that really makes it worthwhile for me and the volunteers to continue doing what we’re doing.”
As long as there are children in need, 999 for Kids will be there to help. “We have been around for a long time and will continue into the future,” says Johnson.