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$10.75 million grant helps Big Brothers, Big Sisters and their ‘littles’

The money will help the non-profit create more mentoring matches across the country and here in Tampa Bay.

TAMPA — Police Officer Joel McKee choked up as he talked about his little “brother.”

For the last year or so, the Tampa officer has been a mentor to a 10-year-old, Pizzo Elementary fifth grader named Princeton through Bigs in Blue.

The one-on-one mentoring program by the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America matches law enforcement officers with youngsters. McKee and Princeton meet once a week at school to play games, do homework and talk about what’s going on in their lives.

McKee said it’s one of the most rewarding hours of his week.

“It truly does bridge the gap between law enforcement and community because Princeton doesn’t just see me as a police officer,” McKee said. “I don’t really know how to put into words what that means to me and what he’s done for me in the past year.”

McKee and Princeton were on hand for a news conference at the Tampa Police Department on Monday to help officials announce a big chunk of money from the federal government to help pay for more matches like theirs. The U.S. Department of Justice is providing a $10.75 million grant to Big Brothers and Sisters of America.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay is among the Florida agencies that will receive money, Pam Iorio, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and a former Tampa mayor, said at the news conference.

“Within these mentoring dollars we expect to serve at least 6,000 big and little matches across the country,” Iorio said. “These are one-to-one mentoring relationships that last an average of 31 months … and of course we know from experience sometimes matches last a lifetime.”

READ MORE: ‘Bigs in Blue’ mentoring program teaches kids that cops aren’t the bad guys

Of the $10.75 million, $1.25 million is designated to support families affected by opioid addiction. Roughly 22 percent of children served by Big Brothers and Big Sisters have a family member with substance abuse issues, Iorio said.

The funding is a slice of $291 million in public safety grant funding going to agencies across Florida, said Katie Sullivan, principal deputy assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs.

“We don’t pretend that federal funding alone will make Florida’s kids and communities safer,” Sullivan said. “That job really does fall to the brave men and women who enforce the law and to the amazing organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters that work every day to create a better future for our youth.”

McKee and Princeton make up one of 38 Bigs in Blue matches at the Tampa Police Department. The St. Petersburg Police Department has 30 and St. Petersburg Chief Anthony Holloway was among the officials on hand to announce the grant.

Mayor Jane Castor first became a “big” when she was a Tampa police major in the 1990s. Her “little,” a third-grader in Sulphur Springs when they first met, is now 26.

“It’s wonderful to see a lot of kids that have been mentored to that have gone on to public service, whether it’s a police officer, a firefighter or a paramedic,” Castor said.

At this point, Princeton, McKee’s “little,” is thinking about sportscasting or marine biology. He said he enjoys having McKee “by my side.”

“I think he’s a benefit to me because he just shows me how to respect other people, to know different people for who they are and not just what they do in life,” Princeton said.

At another news conference later in the day, officials announced that $1.2 million of the grant will go to the Hillsborough County Public Schools to support measures the state has already mandated to boost security, assess threats and help students with mental health issues.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins said $492,000 will be used on a middle school program for students with behavior issues. Another $500,000 will help fund the state-mandated threat assessment process and the district will spend $250,000 on special locks that enable first responders to enter a school when it is in crisis.

Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.