Sports becomes latest outlet for New London to keep building bridges

New London — It was a snapshot of hope and wonder. Of possibility. Of unity.

Of us.

Picture it: Game over for just a few seconds Friday at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, the game between the kids and the police. And then Chery-Ann Lubin, an African American student, jumps on to the back of Mike Lewis, a city police officer.

Lubin wanted a piggy back ride.

Lewis obliged.

Their smiles were of the 50,000 watt variation.

What a time to hit the cosmic pause button. A scene that healed, appealed and revealed all that's possible by adhering to the game's theme: building bridges.

And now you know what happened Friday in the city. The kids and the cops — all of varying backgrounds, cultures and colors — played together. Got to know each other. Saw each other as equals. Just a bunch of people playing a game. Who knows, really, the tentacles of the residual effect?

What a week in the 06320. First a talent show that, annually, has emerged into the single greatest cultural blend in the history of the city. (It should be noted that city police officers bought pizza for the kids during some rehearsal nights, too.) Then the basketball game, the brainchild of Bennie Dover principal Alison Burdick and acting Chief of Police Peter Reichard.

How did they do?

Start here: Numerous kids, who admitted to using the word "hate" to describe the police before the day began, ended it by saying, in the words of student James Brown, "you know, they're not so bad. And some of them have game. I'm not gonna lie."

Lubin said, "I know them to be nice people ... but as basketball players, they're not all that."

Bridges built.

And they were built long before Friday, when Reichard and captain Todd Bergeson would frequent Bennie Dover for lunch to talk to the kids and get their thoughts about a potential basketball game. Learning names. Making friends.

"This is fantastic. Are you kidding me?" Mayor Mike Passero said, between taking photos and interacting with the kids and teachers. "This is why our city doesn't have the problems other cities have. We build relationships early. They're not strangers to each other."

Amazing what happens when leaders like Burdick and Reichard understand the power of together, isn't it?

"Most communities lack communication between law enforcement and young kids," said Steve Fields, a retired former lieutenant colonel with the state police and now the city's Chief Administrative Officer. "Now they see each other in a different light. They're not just authority figures. Days like this enable everybody to see how the police are engaged in the kids' development, too. The kids feel like they're on an equal playing field."

The rattle and hum in the gym extended beyond the basketball, too. The bleachers – full – were home to kids as engaged in the music from the DJ at the game. The kids danced to Ed Sheeran. The adults to Whitney Houston. Oh, how math teacher Tina Torres loved that one.

"I just said to someone 'you just danced to Whitney Houston. Your old is showing," Torres said.

Then there was teacher Baylee Howard, proudly carrying her bullhorn-looking thing that made a siren sound. She was clearly amused.

All the kids saw the teachers' smiling faces. They saw the police as they never had before. They giggled at all the tumbling bodies and traveling violations on the court. They danced and sang in the stands.

Has there been a bigger day of growth in the city all year?

You wonder who learned more about each other ... the police about the kids or the kids about the police.

"This is a big effort toward community policing and it starts with interacting with the kids at a young age and building bridges," city police Lieutenant Matt Galante said. "The flavor toward police officers nationally has been negative for quite some time. Our belief is that if you start from the ground and build it ... you can't beat events like this. This is what we want to do. We want to be more involved with our community."

That much was evident with the group photo at the end of the game. Kids, teachers, administrators, police. Together. The power of together.

New London.

Many cities across the country could have learned from New London on Friday. Leadership begot action. An idea between a principal and a police chief began to affect change in one mind at a time. Building bridges.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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