By Jackson Taylor
The University of Nebraska at Omaha Baseball team partnered with Police Athletics for Community Engagement (P.A.C.E.) last week in a skills camp for South Omaha youth.
P.A.C.E. is a program that was started in 2005 by the Latino Peace Officers Association in conjunction with the Police Athletic League and volunteers. The program is dedicated to preventing “at risk” inner city children from becoming involved with gangs, crime and drug use. Through athletic participation, P.A.C.E. provides an opportunity to develop discipline, self-esteem and positive moral values through wholesome competition.
The initiative was founded in 2005 by Tony Espejo, an Omaha Police officer who is involved with the South Omaha gang unit. Officer Kerrie Orozco, who tragically was killed in action in May, was instrumental in the formation of the organization as well.
Espejo realized that many kids in the neighborhoods love soccer and baseball, but affordable leagues were not available to them. It was this that prompted Espejo to propose the idea of a free soccer league to his supervisor.
“I thought it was worth a shot to try and reach these kids through baseball and soccer,” Espejo said.
Once given permission, Espejo went door to door, recruiting kids from South Omaha to play in the league. He garnered financial support from local businesses to help pay for uniforms and equipment. Tony went as far as bussing kids from North Omaha, another active gang area, to play in games on Friday nights.
The league expanded to include baseball in 2009, showing similar success. The league has been growing steadily from year to year and in 2014 over 1,000 kids participated, ranging in ages from eight to 18. The league survives thanks to donations for equipment, field maintenance and uniforms. Because of the support for P.A.C.E., children can join the league at no cost to their families.
“The biggest thing about this organization is that they provide everything for these kids,” said volunteer baseball coach Casey Valenzuela.
Rafael Corral is a volunteer soccer coach for P.A.C.E. He believes that the soccer league goes beyond learning fundamentals and improving kids athletically.
“We don’t only teach them how to play soccer,” Corral said. “We teach them how to behave, to obey rules and to play fair.”
For P.A.C.E., having the UNO baseball team come to Brown Park over the summer to help put on a skills camp made a huge impact on the kids. Head Coach Bob Herold, along with two UNO assistant coaches and two players, led the camp that included fielding, hitting and pitching drills.
Herold is UNO’s winningest head coach in program history and is entering his 16th season. Herold brought a wealth of experience to Brown Park, having played seven professional seasons of baseball.
Senior pitcher Tyler Fox and freshman infielder Riley Herold also helped out with the camp.
Fox’s role in camp was to give instruction on proper fielding techniques as well as socializing with the kids.
“My favorite part of camp was being a figure that the kids could look up to,” Fox said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that they look up to me as being a college athlete but most importantly being a college student.”