No one needs to be convinced that this has been a terrible year.
The doomsday virus that originated in the People’s Republic of China (otherwise known as COVID-19) has spread death and destruction throughout the globe.
Most of us have personal stories of relatives or friends who have perished as a result of the virus, and all of us have witnessed the devastation of our economy, resulting in people losing their homes, businesses and their livelihoods.
People simply don’t know where to turn.
And in the midst of all of this heartache, we had to witness a hyper-partisan election that exacerbated the problem with riots in our cities and attacks on the very fabric of our lives, including the lunacy of the calls for the abolition and defunding of our police departments, at a time when we need them the most.
It is clearly a time that tests our resolve as a community and a nation.
And a time when we need the holidays the most, when people naturally bind together to help those in need.
We need to look no further than the city of Warwick, the home of arguably the start of the American Revolution when Abraham Whipple and the boys burned His Majesty’s Ship “The Gaspee” in 1772, to once again see the power of what people can do to help their community.
It is against this backdrop of the pandemic and the calls to abolish and defund the police that Jennifer Rathbun, who is married to Warwick Police Chief Rick Rathbun, formed the Warwick Police Department Family Group to start helping family members of not only Warwick Police officers, but families in the community as well.
She initially contacted the National Police Wives Association and was encouraged to “reach out to families of our department” knowing that “with all the unrest in the community, we really didn’t feel connected.”
“There was a sense of isolation that we felt,” according to Rathbun.
She also reached out to the Rhode Island Chapter of the National Police Wives Association, which is comprised of about 400 family members representing departments throughout the state.
Ms. Rathbun also noticed that many law enforcements family peer support groups are geared toward spouses, primarily wives, and thought that the focus in Warwick “should be on families, and not just on officers and their spouses.”
“Family members are in service alongside their officers, but not everyone is married and support systems often include parents, siblings and adult children,” she said.
So, with the strong support of her husband she “reached out with an inclusive invitation to join together” and launched the WPD Family Group this past summer.
The group set up a private social media page, and for people not accustomed to social media, created connections through email.
It didn’t take long for the membership to grow to over 40 people and they quickly started to engage with the department and the community.
They reached out to WPD Community Services Division Capt. Michael Lima and started to coordinate with his division, which covers everything from community policing to school resource officers and mental health needs.
They together outlined some upcoming projects to work on, starting with the highly successful Thanksgiving Food Drive at markets throughout the city, where people could “stuff a police cruiser” parked outside the stores with food for needy families.
It was so successful that according to Capt. Lima, they had to replace the police cruisers with vans.
But on a sad note, they also found it difficult to see the unprecedented need caused by the pandemic. They were told that over 150 people a day stood in line for the donations.
That help was most welcomed by West Bay Community Action.
According to Lima, “their shelves were bare. Words couldn’t do justice to the joy that was created (with the donations). Things might be good for us, but not for other people.”
“I brought my kids along to show how people need our help. It teaches all of us a lesson,” he said.
Not resting on their laurels, the group then turned their efforts to helping families cope during the Christmas season.
Using the same model to “stuff a cruiser” to provide needy families with toys and clothes for their children, volunteers gave up many weekends to stand outside several businesses to solicit donations.
In all, hundreds of families were helped in a time when they needed it the most.
A time when many families were put in a position that they never dreamed that they would be in.
But food drives and toy drives are not the only thing that the group does.
It also helps police families in a variety of ways, sometimes with emotional support, and sometimes with the little things that can make all the difference in the world, from sharing mental health resources, or a bit of humor, to providing a safe sounding board for shared concerns. The group also lobbies Rhode Island elected officials with letter writing campaigns in support of pro-law enforcement legislation.
They also turn inward to support the department by participating in efforts such as the National Thank a Police Officer Day in September.
According to Jennifer, “many of our officers do things quietly, things that never make the papers. Like the officer who came into contact with a senior citizen who did not have any food in his home and went into a nearby store to buy him some with his own money, or another who saw a family whose children had no warm clothing. So, she went into a store and bought them some, again with her own money.”
Jennifer Rathbun sees it this way: “It’s not really the role of the police department to run food drives and toy drives. But we know that when people are struggling to meet basic needs, that can lead to a sense of desperation. And nothing good comes from hopelessness.”
She continued: “If we can provide some hope in a way that helps to humanize the badge by being bridge-builders within the community, then that’s a good thing for us to support. And the generosity of the public that has been reflected back towards the police department’s efforts to help those in need is truly the hallmark of a caring community.”
She added: “We keep hearing that the holidays are going to be different this year. It turns out that kindness is still the answer, at least in Warwick where the Police Department and their family members behind the scenes take pride in leading with love for their neighbors … and that’s truly the spirit of Christmas in action!”
Can’t add much to those eloquent words.
And from the Levesque family to yours – our wishes for a very Merry Christmas and a better 2021.
J. Michael Levesque, a Warwick resident, is a former mayor of West Warwick and contributor to these newspapers.