Lomita Park Elementary School students may be young, but they know enough about the way of the world to understand that on most days, the sight of a uniformed Sheriff's deputy marching through the school cafeteria during business hours isn't always a good thing.
But when Sheriff's Lt. Ed Barberini was on the Millbrae campus' playground on a sun-splashed Thursday morning, kids who just a few weeks ago would have greeted him with nervous stares, were walking up to the cop slapping high-fives.
Winning the hearts and minds of at-risk youths in an underserved community near the San Bruno border where many have relatives who are in gangs or prison is no easy task.
But the Sheriff's department has enlisted fresh air, fun, exercise, some friendly competition and good vibes in an effort to win that fight.
The department earlier this year launched the "Healthy Kids Lunchtime Soccer” program, which serves five elementary schools in three cities.
The program also serves three schools in Redwood City (Garfield, Clifford and Fair Oaks) and Half Moon Bay's El Granada.
The Garfield program launched first. Lomita Park's started about a month ago.
Barberini's recent experience on the Lomita Park campus suggests that so far, it seems to be working.
"Nobody asked me who he was here to arrest, so it's a good start," Lomita Elementary Principal Claire Beltrami said.
"A few weeks ago they were asking me that."
The lunch program is run by the Sheriff's Activities League, a group that has been teaching soccer skills and life lessons to high-risk to Peninsula kids since 1998.
"It's a long-term investment for us," Barberini said of the program. "The kids at this age grow up to be teenagers, and if we can build that relationship it works to everybody's benefit."
The lunch program splits students into groups of first-through-third graders and fourth-through-sixth graders and emphasizes sportsmanship ahead of competition.
But coaches teach teamwork and some fundamentals, and players will have a chance to use those skills as they rise through the ranks of a SAL program that fields competitive club teams.
Brian Mansell directs the program, which counts a scholarship athlete and a Major League Soccer developmental-level player among its success stories.
Armando Garcia, now a Notre Dame de Namur University standout, got his start through the SAL program at Taft and later Fair Oaks before going on to play at perennial high school power Sequoia.
Garcia and , another SAL product who went on to play in the San Jose Earthquakes Youth Academy, are now volunteer coaches in lunch program.
"It gave me a chance to play and kept me off the streets pretty much," said Garcia, a two-time All-Pacific West Conference selection at NDNU.
Garcia acknowledged that many of his childhood friends have since taken "a different route."
"A lot of them are on the other side of the fence," Mansell said.
Measures to keep kids on the right side of the fence include tutoring, nutrition and mentoring, Barberini said.
"From our perspective, we want to help the kids, we want to give them an outlet where they have some kind of structured sports avenue which some of them don't have access to," Barberini said.
"It also builds that bond between law enforcement and the young people in the community so they're not afraid or intimidated or hesitant or about approaching us, especially about reporting crimes."
The lunch program also helps the sheriff's buck negative stereotypes about police as antagonists, Millbrae School Resource Officer Daniel Young said.
"Now they know we're here for good reasons," Young said. "Hopefully I'm more approachable."
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