In the spring of 2005, founder, Antonio (Tony) Espejo, an Omaha Police officer with the Gang Squad, attended a gang symposium in Florida. A break out session featured speaker, Robert Muzikowski, a successful businessman who began an inner-city baseball league in one of the toughest neighborhoods of Chicago. His theory was that if you can get kids to play together at age 11, it is hard for them to shoot each other at age 16.
After returning to Omaha, Tony realized that for every gang member he arrested and removed from the streets, there would be two to three more kids to take their place. Various gangs existed in South Omaha and gang violence was high. Something had to be done at the source of the problem.
When Tony came back to South Omaha, he started to research the sports opportunities in this area of the city. This is the same neighborhood where he was raised and was also a high gang violence area. Many of the programs that existed for kids during his own childhood were no longer around. He also noticed that many of the kids in these neighborhoods loved soccer, but affordable soccer leagues were not
available to them. He then approached his supervisor, Sgt. Richard Gonzalez, and proposed the idea of offering a free soccer league to at-risk and disadvantaged inner-city youth.
The early vision was to make “good gangs” through the soccer league to help deter the youth from real gang membership. In the fall of 2005, with the help of a few fellow Officers, Tony made his dream a reality. He went out and recruited kids from South Omaha to join the league. He went door-to-door asking businesses for donations to fund uniforms, equipment, etc. The kids practiced in their individual neighborhoods and played games on Friday nights. The games were played in South Omaha and usually within walking distance for the kids. If they could not walk, Tony himself borrowed a van and picked them up and took them home after the games. He even bussed in kids from North Omaha – another very active gang area of Omaha.
In 2005, Tony started with six teams. By 2006, the league had grown to 20 teams. Every year, the league continues to grow. In 2016, the league had over 2,000 kids participating, ranging in ages from eight to 18, and 2019 PACE had over 5,800 program participants. The league tries to reach kids that would not normally be able to participate due to financial situations and family dynamics. These are the kids that are heavily recruited into gangs. The league wants to give every kid the experiential opportunity at athletics.
In 2009, the league expanded to offer a baseball league, which has been quite successful and includes kids that may not play soccer. The baseball league is coached by volunteer police officers and helps to establish a strong connection between the community and its police officers. The relationships they develop helps residents and participants see officers in a different perspective. In turn, the officers also have a different view of the community they serve.
We truly believe that our leagues have reduced gang recruitment and activity, simply because of the idea that kids really enjoy doing things that are positive and if offered the opportunity, they will choose sports instead of gangs.
What makes us different than other programs? We don’t wait for parents to sign up their children – most will not. We actively go out and find them. You don’t have a uniform? Doesn’t matter – come play for us. Don’t have a coach? Come play for us. Can’t afford to play? No worries, we have you covered. All we ask from our kids is to stay out of trouble and give 100%.
Police Athletics for Community Engagement (PACE) specifically targets the percentage of kids whose parents are not going to sign up their child at organizations like the YMCA or the Boys or Girls Club. We recruit that 10% of kids that cannot afford athletics. We seek out those kids and make it easy for them to get involved. For our soccer program, we recruit by neighborhood and try to keep the kids together. Many times the older teams sign up without a coach and an uncle or cousin step in to coach the team. This helps those adults to get engaged and support the league.
We want to create leaders and teach these kids how to get organized in a positive way. The older kids learn to be responsible for their team and teammates. They learn to be punctual, organize their practices, and most importantly lead by example. Many of the older teams have helped coach and organize teams for their little brothers/sisters or their neighborhood.
We also partner with local organizations, such as South Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, Completely Kids, and Girls Inc. to get their kids engaged in sports. In order to provide athletics on a higher level, we have partnered with many select teams in both soccer and baseball. These partnerships with organizations helps to provide additional advancement in training and experience for our athletes, that would not be able to afford the financial requirements at that level. This assistance is provided as scholarships, with the expectation that the athletes will return to our program and pass on the skills obtained. These organizations have agreed to provide coaching and player clinics to help our leagues excel.
Our soccer program has grown from 90 kids in our initial year to over 4,000 participants in 2019. In the beginning, we were able to provide a police officer to coach every team. This is no longer feasible because of the size of the program. We rely heavily on volunteers and the kids themselves to coach and mentor. This has really helped teach the kids selflessness and the value of giving back to the community.
Our baseball program has grown from 90 participants in 2009 to over 700 participants in 2019, 2020, and 2021. The baseball program is coached and mentored by police officers. These officers volunteer their time, on and off-duty, to coach individual teams. Officers spend the entire eight week baseball program with their team instilling the ideas of sportsmanship, responsibility, and teamwork. Often times, these officers are the same police officers that patrol the participants’ neighborhoods. This allows kids to see police officers from a different perspective, and affords officers the opportunity to build a strong relationship with the families they serve. Since 2019 we have had over 700 participants in our Baseball Programming.
Police Athletics for Community Engagement (P.A.C.E.) is working to take our athletic program city-wide. This endeavor will provide athletics to kids in each section of Omaha that normally would not participate in organized sports. We hope to build partnerships with organizations throughout the city and help provide affordable athletics. We also want to emphasize the importance of education in athletics, as well as our anti-gang message. Our goal is to build stronger relationships between neighborhoods and the officers that patrol those communities and most importantly help make Omaha a better place to be - one kid at a time.