It's Monday morning, and Pasco County sheriff's Capt. James Steffens is standing at the head of an auditorium in front of two rows of squirming children, trying to strike a balance.
He knows that the children of the Boys and Girls Club have been told they'll get to see SWAT gear and guns and badges and handcuffs. He's already sold them on that part of the demonstration. But first, he wants to explain that there are two paths in life: right decisions and wrong decisions. This job has made him familiar with the effects of both.
"I've seen the most magnificent and wonderful things," he says, in a tone a parent might use for bedtime stories. "And I've seen things that bring tears to my eyes."
He says he hopes the children will see deputies as friends who are there to keep them safe.
"Now," he says, "out of a show of hands, who wants to see the stuff?"
All hands go up. One boy raises both hands.
Then, on the driving pad of Pasco-Hernando State College's law enforcement academy, the children met two deputies dressed in all of their SWAT gear. They toured the inside of a Bearcat armored truck. Jace Day, 10, and her brother James, 9, struggled to lift a bulletproof riot shield.
Cassie Coleman, program director for the Lacoochee Boys and Girls Club, said PHSC was one stop on a tour around Tampa Bay to help kids learn about career options and the training that is required. The group of children, ages 9 to 17, has been to Tampa International Airport, the Pasco County court house and SeaWorld.
"I want our kids to know that with a good education, there is a life beyond what they know and where they live, beyond Lacoochee, beyond Dade City," she said. "They need to know what's required to get these jobs. We need to get them thinking now."
At lunch — salad with ham and cheese sandwiches that Coleman had packed — Brandon Villanueva, 9, said he might consider a career in law enforcement. And Steffens' bit about good and bad decisions wasn't lost on him.
"When you get older," he said, "you need to know this stuff."
After lunch on the driving pad, the children watched a demonstration by academy director Charlie May in a skid car that cadets use to learn tactical driving. Then they chanted for Coleman to take a turn on the course.
From bleachers under a pavilion, they watched Coleman hook a left around a traffic cone, then send the car into a screeching turn on the other side of the tarmac. Her maneuvers were met with applause and cheers from the bleachers. She received a hero's welcome after the drive.
"Oh, my goodness," she said, getting out of the car. "It is so awesome."
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