The rumbling of the helicopter blades slicing through the morning air reverberated throughout the classroom.
“We’re not under attack,” Sheriff Don Barnes assured the three-dozen high school students. “That’s a helicopter coming to see you.”
Indeed, the helicopter was one of several cool things students from two Garden Grove high schools recently were exposed to in a first-ever collaboration between Orange County United Way and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
The event, held at the OCSD Regional Training Facility in Tustin, was part of the United Way’s Youth Career Connections Program, which educates juniors and seniors about the huge variety of career options at the OCSD.
United Way has partnered with more than 30 businesses and organizations for its Youth Career Connections Program, now in its third year. But the four-hour-long session on Feb. 4 at the OCSD Regional Training Facility in Tustin marked the first time United Way has partnered with the OCSD on its career program.
“It’s all about taking students out of their bubble and exposing them to unique career opportunities that are available to them,” said Sergio Contreras, senior director of education and healthy schools at Orange County United Way. “There are so many (law enforcement) careers these students wouldn’t have been aware of if they hadn’t participated in an event like today’s.”
From hearing about crime scene investigation work to catching bad guys from the air to working on the bomb squad or as a coroner investigator, the students – from Los Amigos and Garden Grove high schools – learned there’s much more to law enforcement at the OCSD than working patrol.
Danielle Gomez, a junior at Garden Grove High, was enamored by K9 Archie, who can sniff out explosives.
“Honestly,” Gomez said, “it was a really good experience coming here. It expanded my knowledge about law enforcement as well as my interest in it. It was cool. I never realized how many options were available (at the OCSD).”
Danielle, 17, said she’s considering a career in CSI.
United Way’s Youth Career Connections Program works with high schools’ Career Technical Education classes to provide work-based learning opportunities to both students and teachers. For students, the program is an opportunity to see how what they study is connected to the real world.
The Youth Career Connections Program includes corporate speaking engagements, host industry site visits, teacher learning panels, job shadowing opportunities for teachers, and summer internships for students.
Ricky Ramos, 17, a senior at Garden Grove High, spent time at a recruitment booth on Feb. 4. He said he’s considering going into the Air Force and then pursuing a career as a deputy at the OCSD.
Dazzled by the infrared camera equipment on a patrol helicopter that is part of the OCSD’s Angel Air Support fleet, Ernesto Casillas, a junior at Los Amigos High, called the experience “incredible.” He’s thinking of pursuing a career in forensics.
Gail Krause, community relations manager at the OCSD, coordinated the event, which included opening remarks by Sheriff Don Barnes, as well as a panel discussion that included Bob Peterson, undersheriff; Brett Doretti, a lead forensics specialist; Richard Rodriguez, a 37-year veteran of the coroner division; and Richard Sanchez, of the Professional Standards Division.
All five doled out advice to the students, starting with Barnes, who told them that preparation to become an OCSD deputy or member of the agency’s professional staff starts now.
“The decisions you make today will determine whether or not you get into this profession,” Barnes said. “If you’re smoking weed, you’re probably not going to be hired in law enforcement.
“Your criminal record as a juvenile, we can see it….If you have a lot of debt, we generally won’t hire you. A lot of debt means you’re making poor decisions.
“Really, it’s all about your character. The decisions you make now are building a portfolio of your experiences that will or will not allow you to come into this professional later on.
“We’re looking for character. I can train anybody to do this job, but I can’t train character.”
Barnes provided an overview of the OCSD, which with 4,000 employees and 800 volunteers is the fifth-largest sheriff’s department in the nation.
“We provide patrol services to 800,000 of the 3.2 million residents of Orange County,” Barnes said. “We also cover all the courts and have three harbors that are patrolled by the sheriff’s department who do firefighting, engage in counter-terrorism activities, and provide human trafficking prevention….We also have John Wayne Airport, and run the fifth-largest jail system in the U.S.”
Barnes also mentioned the agency’s internationally accredited Orange County Crime Lab as well as the coroner’s division, which serves as a statewide trainer center.
“If you’re looking at something that you might want to do,” Barnes said, “these and other opportunities do exist, and I highly recommended them.”
The sheriff recommended that the students pursue a college degree in business or psychology or communications.
“Then come to the academy,” Barnes said, “and we’ll teach you everything you need to know about how to become a law enforcement professional.”
Barnes initially wanted to become an architect, and he worked in mortgage banking prior to becoming a deputy.
“I wanted a less stressful job,” he said, “so I went into law enforcement.”
Peterson, who as the No. 2 person at the OCSD acts as the agency’s chief operating officer, told the students he came from a humble background.
Peterson said he was homeless for a while as a young teenager. And his first job at the OCSD, at age 19, was washing inmates’ clothing.
“It’s pretty simple,” Peterson said of getting on the right track to pursue a dream career. “Put your egos aside…and be smart enough to listen to older people. Get squared away, and find a mentor.”
Rodriguez, the coroner division veteran, said he planned to be a firefighter but finished last in the academy, so that career didn’t pan out.
He admitted to “having nothing to offer” and being lazy as a young man. Rodriguez credited his long and rewarding career at the OCSD to a pathologist at St. Joseph Hospital, who took Rodriguez under his wing when Rodriguez was working there as a phlebotomist.
“Your attitude is going to open doors, or close them right behind you,” Rodriguez said.
Sanchez urged the students to be advocates for themselves.
“Every day’s an interview,” he said. “Know what makes you special, and capitalize on it.”
Doretti got into forensics because of his passion for photography, which is a key part of his work.
“CSI and an interest in photography are a perfect match,” Doretti said.
Contreras, of Orange County United Way, said a key to the Youth Career Connections Program is educating businesses and other agencies about what roles they can play in advancing the future workforce.
And he said he believes the summer internships for students is where the program has the most impact. Students selected for internships are paid $450 and given bus passes to work 20 hours a week for four weeks at a host site. Contreras noted that the Orange County Department of Education covers liability for internships.
The Youth Career Connections Program, Contreras said, has proven to be very valuable in only three years.
“We’re opening up their minds to a variety of (career) possibilities,” Contreras said.
To submit a Youth Career Connections Summer Internship Program application, click here.