LARGO – It’s not as if Pinellas County Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Wagner wasn’t accustomed to going the extra mile when it came to helping out kids.
As a campus police officer at East Lake High School in the 1990s, for instance, he coached the varsity soccer team on his own time – all the way to the state finals.
But there was something amiss about the children Wagner encountered after he was asked to head-up a violent crimes task force to get guns off the streets in some of the county’s poorer neighborhoods.
“It kind of dawned on me in some of my dealings with some of the teenagers that there was a lot of hostility for law enforcement and in general,” said Wagner, 48.
Wagner, along with his wife, Michelle, 36, a former sheriff’s deputy, decided to do something about it.
They joined the Big Couples program, a variation of Big Sisters and Big Brothers where a youngster spends some quality time with a man and wife as opposed to a lone man or woman.
When supervising the violent crimes task force, Wagner said, he and his colleagues would end up in large neighborhood confrontations at the end of a police pursuit or while arresting a suspect on a drug charge.
“Entire families come out berating the cops because we were taking someone into custody,” Wagner said. “It seemed like it was a bit ingrained.
“I said, ‘These guys are working hard to make the community safe,’” Wagner remembers telling some. “It became apparent there was a lack of male role models.”
When he talked to his wife about the disrespect, she first suggested he do something about it, then suggested that whatever they do, they do together.
“Why don’t we do it as a unit?” Wagner said Michelle suggested. “I could use the reinforcement to tell you the truth”
Since January, the Wagners have volunteered as a Big Couple to Layne, who just turned 11.
Layne, who has spent time in an emergency homeless shelter, at one point lived with his grandmother, two older twin brothers, and an older sister. He has no contact with his father, and his mother is behind bars.
Regardless of a particular family’s deprivation, those volunteering as a Big Brother, Big Sister or Big Couple are encouraged to maintain boundaries, so as not to become overwhelmed or discouraged.
“They don’t want you adopting the entire family or getting them gifts,” Wagner said. “It’s a one-on-one situation.”
Time with a youngster also is limited, said Mindy Aldrich, the match support specialist who works with the Wagners. Big Couples spend only four to eight hours a month with their charges.
In the Wagners’ case, the couple has been taking Layne to Tampa Bay Rays games, the skate park, bicycle riding. and a trampoline center.
“We do a lot of regular things he doesn’t get to do,” the sergeant said.
Layne grew up with a television where he and his siblings could play video games but could not watch any programming. As a result Layne knew little about baseball. He had a bicycle, but he lived in a dangerous neighborhood and it was stolen from underneath him, Wagner said.
Layne also has had some learning difficulties. He didn’t speak until he was 6 years old. Wagner drove him to a Summer Bridge program so Layne would perform better academically in the fourth grade than he did in the third, Wagner said.
Still, it’s unclear what effect this and other efforts will have on him in the long term.
“You can have a great visit for several hours over the weekend but you don’t know if the lessons are lost or don’t stick,” Wagner said.
“We’ve taken some appreciation for some very small victories,” he said. “We’re taking some great pride in the fact he’s talking to us at all.”
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