The girl in the bright pink Nikes ran fast, her long thick braid bobbing against her back with every stride.
Seven-year-old Abigail Perez Aguilera then bounded over to her mom and threw her arms around her for a big hug.
The first-grader adjusted her black-framed glasses on her nose and swiped the strands of hair that had come loose while running from her face. She smiled a wide, toothy grin.
This is not the same daughter Tustin resident Wendy Aguilera knew just a few weeks ago, but a simple twice-a-week new hobby has changed her.
Abigail is one of 134 students at Tustin’s Heideman Elementary School who participate in Run with a Cop, the Tustin Police Department’s latest community outreach program that kicked off April 12.
Aguilera said her daughter was unsure she wanted to join a run club led by cops, but she encouraged the seven year old to participate.
She asked me, ‘Mom, do you think I can do this?’” Aguilera said. “I said, ‘I know you can. I believe in you.’”
Abigail is quiet, shy and a good student, but her mother feared her daughter also was unhappy.
The first grader would often resort to her room rather than play with friends and had difficulty sharing her feelings, even with family.
“She would always tell me, “Mom, I’m fine,’” Aguilera said. “But I knew she was not fine.”
Then Abigail started running with Tustin PD every Tuesday and Thursday and things changed.
Abigail now has an easier time talking with other students and her teachers say she is more outgoing in the classroom.
“As a mom, I know this is helping my daughter,” she said of the Tustin PD run club. “I see she is more open now and trying new things.
“Now she tells me what she wants and how she feels. Every weekend she asks, ‘Mom is tomorrow Tuesday?’”
The program, started by Tustin Officer Matt Roque, inspires students to embrace health and physical fitness while learning how to care for their community — an area of Tustin Roque describes as something of an island in the city.
“I just saw a need for this,” said Roque, who first served as a dispatcher with Tustin PD for three years before becoming a cop five years ago. “Since I started here, this area has been endearing to me.
“By sheer geography, it is separated from the rest of Tustin so much so that some people don’t even know this is a part of the community.”
The area bound by the 5 and 55 freeways is known as a higher-crime part of the city and historically residents have been stand-offish with police, Roque said.
The Tustin PD has launched various community programs over the years to build trust in the community.
“I’ve noticed there is less willingness for the public (in this area) to give us information or call us,” Roque said. “These kids are everything. Starting with the kids, we build that foundation that helps not only with our relationship, but in life.”
The children who live in the area near Main and Williams streets, many in apartment complexes neighboring the school, have no nearby parks or recreational facilities to play in.
“They have nowhere to go,” Roque said. “There are a million studies that talk about linking physical education with doing well in school.
“The idea behind this is to just get kids moving. They love it.”
So Roque, who happens to be married to a serious long-distance runner who competed at the collegiate level, decided to start an after-school run club.
“Running is free,” he said. “You don’t need any equipment except a good pair of shoes.”
On a recent Tuesday, Roque and Officer Mike Carter set up a course for the students to run, hop and skip through.
Roque talked to the kids about fitness, the benefits of healthy eating, and the importance of hydrating and getting enough sleep.
He also took several opportunities to talk about being respectful and taking care of the community by not littering.
“I grew up in a small town of 300 people in Ontario, Canada and it really was a community and you had to take care of each other,” he said. “However long it takes, I want to foster a sense of community in this area so people start taking care of it and start taking pride in it.”
Roque instilled these lessons as the students ran laps for five minutes without stopping and played follow the leader through an obstacle course that included weaving in and out of cones and hopping on one foot over agility ladders.
The session closed with group stretching and the children counting out loud in English, Spanish and Japanese.
Aguilera smiled as she watched her daughter reach for her toes and stretch her arm behind her head.
“I think it is so awesome (the police) do this,” Aguilera said. “It makes me so proud to see her happy. It makes me happy.”
Heideman Elementary School student Samuel Santillan participates in an exercise led by Tustin Police Department’s Matthew Roque.
Photo by Christine Cotter/Behind the Badge OC