- Associated Press - Sunday, June 21, 2015

NORWALK, Conn. (AP) - When Thaddeus Burris first joined the Norwalk police department youth group, Building Blocks, he harbored a negative opinion of the police and appeared thoroughly disinterested in opening up.

Fast forward a few months and 14-year-old Thaddeus is smiling and joking with officers Hector Delgado and Kelly Hollister as he and fellow Roton Middle School student Jose Villafane prepared to embark on a trip together to Washington D.C.

“Oh man, he wouldn’t even speak to us when he first got here,” Delgado said. “But we just kept pushing and kept talking to him and slowly but surely, like an onion, his layers came off. He’s a really good kid, all of our kids are great.”

Delgado and Hollister began hosting the grant-funded youth group last September in an effort to bridge the gap between police and area teens along with building long-lasting relationships.

Since then, the group has bonded over friendly tackle football games, ice skating, bowling, a trip to Lake Compounce and an array of community service events.

Through those events and the weekly meetings, Delgado said he and Hollister have worked to instill values in the teens and dissuade them from experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

“It’s good for them to see our point of view on things and also for us to see their point of view,” Delgado said. “The hope is to start with a small group and have it turn into a chain effect with other youths.”

In March, Delgado said he and members of the youth group attended the 2015 Coalition for Juvenile Justice annual conference in Stratford, where 13-year-old Jose and Thaddeus were later chosen by the Connecticut state coordinator, along with Delgado and Hollister to attend a national conference in Washington D.C. from June 10-13.

The conference, Delgado said features an array of speakers, panels and workshops that delve into emerging trends impacting the work of juvenile justice agencies and stakeholders.

“They (Jose and Thaddeus) were asked to publicly speak at the (March) conference and they shined the most,” Hollister said. “We didn’t even know the D.C. trip was an option so we were shocked when we heard we were chosen to attend along with the Old Lyme police department. It’s really exciting.”

Like Thaddeus, Jose was also experiencing some emotional turmoil prior to joining the youth group.

“I was getting in a lot of trouble and when I first started the program, I was scared of cops,” Jose said. “But after getting to know them, I realized they were nice and friendly. They’re teaching us what to do right and what not to do wrong. I’ve learned a lot in this group.”

Thaddeus, who was referred to the group by the Juvenile Review Board, also admitted the group has helped him, saying he has built up the strength to say no when people offer him drugs.

“I might not have said no if I wasn’t in this group,” Thaddeus said. “I didn’t like cops before, I just didn’t. But now I don’t think they’re as bad as everyone says.”

As the group prepared to take off on the trip, Jose’s mother, Tatiana Ortega smiled and hugged her son.

“I am so proud of him,” Ortega said. “He has gone through a lot of rough times since he was little and he has just blossomed in such an amazing way since joining the youth group.”

Ortega said Jose is now an honor student at Roton and he is slowly breaking free of his insecurities.

“It’s also funny how their (Jose and Thaddeus) friendship blossomed,” Ortega said. “They weren’t friends at all, but little by little, their friendship has grown and they look out for each other now.”

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Information from: The Hour, http://www.thehour.com

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