OAKLAND — The closest beach is miles away, and so is the nearest pool. But on Union Street in West Oakland, you can find kids plunging their hands into buckets of wet sand in an unlikely place: a police headquarters.
The Oakland school district has its own small police force, which recently moved into the old Cole Middle School campus. Chief Pete Sarna said kids would come by this spring, curious about their new neighbors (and their fleet of vehicles). The officers would chat with them, but there wasn't much else to do.
Then Sarna had an idea.
"I was just staring out at that empty parking lot, and I thought, 'These kids must need something to do. Why not build a summer program?'" he said.
That was in June. Two weeks later, officers Holly Matthews, Michael Anderson and Miguel DeLuna found themselves playing basketball, mediating disputes, setting up art projects and dispensing timeouts. Other officers rotate through to help out, as does 18-year-old Christian Andrews, a recent EXCEL High School graduate whom Sarna recruited to volunteer before he leaves for college next month.
"I go home tired every single day," Matthews said. "It sounds so corny and clichéd, but it feels good."
The camp, for children ages 5-13, goes from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. It's 10 weeks long and runs through Aug. 27, the last week of the school district's summer break. The kids attend for free.
Only a handful of kids showed up on the first day. Now, the program is almost at capacity. More than 40 children from North, West and East Oakland come to play kickball, basketball, baseball or chess, or to paint, read or dig in the sand — whatever they feel like doing. They eat breakfast and lunch outside, on picnic tables under a canopy.
Officer Rick Moore, who used to work in construction, built a sandbox in the middle of the asphalt lot with materials donated by Broadway Mechanical, an East Oakland business. It was so popular that he built another one.
The officers resurfaced the basketball court and painted it and the baseball diamond bright blue, using leftover paint from the school district. They cleaned up the litter-strewn, overgrown park next to the playground, installed a tetherball court and brought in large planters for a future gardening project.
At day's end, Matthews, Anderson and DeLuna go home and throw dozens of bright yellow camp T-shirts into the wash.
This is what true community policing is all about, Sarna said. The program keeps children safe, active and out of trouble during the long summer months. It also gives officers a chance to earn the trust of families in an area where fear and suspicion of law enforcement run deep.
Michael Denard, 8, lives right around the corner. He and his friend Daylen Goosby, who lives across the street from Cole, are regulars. They enjoy playing sports with the officers and checking out their cars, they said. Like many of the kids interviewed, they were the most excited about the camp's social scene and the friends they've made.
"Lots of people like to be friends with us," Michael said. "We kind of like that."
If it weren't for the summer camp, he said, "I would have been at home, watching TV, eating all day and playing games."
Sarna says that the program has been even more successful than he had hoped but that it's just a start. When school starts up again in August, he wants to open a tutoring and mentoring center with a library of children's books.
And the camp? The kids could use a fountain to cool themselves off from that powerful summer sun, he said. Maybe some grass or turf to break up the asphalt. Mini-golf would be nice.
And Sarna doesn't see why it couldn't expand to other neighborhoods next year, reaching more kids who have nothing to do all summer.