ST. PETERSBURG — They played an NBA video game Tuesday like the oldest of friends.
"You dunked on me!" one shouted, feigning momentary outrage.
The other erupted into laughter.
But St. Petersburg police Detective Samora Church and 9-year-old Indya Hansberry had only just met.
The two are participating in a new program at All Children's Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine that pairs police officers with chronically ill kids trying to keep up with their schoolwork. The officers mentor the children, with the goal of providing extra support in the face of serious health challenges.
Indya has sickle cell anemia, an inherited blood disorder that lands her in the hospital every few months. She is thriving at James B. Sanderlin PK-8 IB World School in St. Petersburg. But her grandmother, Patricia Dixon, said she welcomed the opportunity for Indya to have a positive role model.
"They hit it off the minute they saw each other," said Dixon, who has been Indya's primary caretaker since her mother died from heart failure two years ago.
The idea for the program came about earlier this year, when the hospital's in-house schoolteacher Alicia Riggs was talking to 16-year-old Z'Vante Thompson. Z'Vante needs monthly blood transfusions to manage his sickle cell anemia and was struggling to keep up with his classwork.
So Riggs asked Z'Vante if he wanted a mentor.
And not just any mentor. A cop.
Z'Vante thought the idea sounded cool. He agreed to give it a try.
There was a reason Riggs suggested a police officer.
"I have been married to one for 30 years," she said. "I know they are good people who want the best for kids."
Riggs found a champion in St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway, who not only agreed to let his officers participate, but asked if he could mentor a child too.
"It's about building that relationship," Holloway said. "I don't want kids running away from a uniform. I want them to run toward a police officer if they need help."
So far, 31 officers have volunteered to be mentors.
They can hang out with their kids during lunch or dinner breaks, or when they are off the clock.
Holloway was paired with Z'Vante. The two have already had lunch together, and exchange text messages regularly.
"He's teaching me a lot about Facecalls," Holloway said.
"He means FaceTime," the teenager said with a grin, naming the iPhone app that lets people connect via video-conference.
Z'Vante likes having a mentor, especially one who is a police chief.
"He makes sure I get good grades," he said of Holloway. "He doesn't want me to be bored."
Although Holloway and Z'Vante connected in June, the program didn't get off to an official start until Tuesday afternoon. The officers had a training session at All Children's, and then met the kids for pizza and brownies in the hospital's rec room.
Some of the pairs played pool. Others decorated cookies and made picture frames from Popsicle sticks. One boy peppered his mentor with questions about being a police officer.
Church, who has been in law enforcement for more than a decade, said she was looking forward to participating in the program. She connected instantly with Indya, who wore a pink T-shirt and matching high-top sneakers for the occasion.
"I'm hoping I can be a friend or an outlet if she needs to vent," Church said. "Being sick, she deals with things that are much harder than what I deal with on a day-to-day basis."
Indya said she, too, was excited about the budding relationship.
"I can have fun and do different things with her," she said.
Things had already gotten off to a strong start, Indya added with a shy smile. She beat her new friend 21-1 in the video game.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.