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Books and the Badge

Picture the perfect place for kids to go after school. There are computers, Wi-Fi, and supplies for completing class projects. Teachers give extra tutoring to those who need it. For those who finish their homework, a park, playground, and basketball courts beckon them outside. Special events attract children and parents alike.

In Donaldsonville, such a place exists. But it’s not at a school, a library, or even a YMCA. The Hickley M. Waguespack Center—or the Wag Center, as it’s known—is a substation of the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office. It’s also the location of a wildly successful PRIME TIME program.

“To be honest with you, we didn’t think it would work, because it didn’t work at the library,” said Lt. Michael Brooks, the manager of the Wag Center.

Lt. Brooks and his team were happily proven wrong. The first program, held in spring 2019, attracted twenty-two families. A marketing effort on Facebook gave the program an even bigger push. Fifty families joined PRIME TIME in the fall, prompting the Wag Center to hold two programs a week instead of one to accommodate demand. This spring they went back to offering it only once a week for twenty-five families, but not because interest has waned.

“My phone rings off the hook for PRIME TIME,” said Lt. Brooks. “PRIME TIME is actually one of my most active programs that people inquire about year-round.”

That a reading program would get more turnout at a police station than the Ascension Parish Library might sound unusual, but not when you consider the Wag Center itself.

Started a few years ago by then Sheriff Jeff Wiley, the Wag Center opened on the campus of a former school in response to an uptick in local crime. Rather than let it be just another substation, Sheriff Wiley and his officers wanted to become more connected with the community. After listening to the needs of nearby schools, they decided to offer access to computers, the internet, educational resources, and playground equipment. These were uncharted waters, as Lt. Brooks and his colleague Lt. Tony Tureau put it. There wasn’t another substation like it that they knew of, but the challenge was worth it.

“It doesn’t just help us as a sheriff’s office, or them as a community,” said Lt. Tureau. “It helps us as a whole reach our goal of unity.”

And it seems to be working. Where they might feel hesitant about going to the library, the kids of Donaldsonville have no problem showing up to use the Wag Center’s computers or start a game on the basketball courts. The substation has become a home away from home for many young people, and part of that is because of the officers themselves.

“They know that they’re going to see Mike’s smiling face and that Mike’s going to cut up with them,” Lt. Tureau said of Lt. Brooks. It’s not unheard of for the officers to join kids on the courts for a game or two.

Bringing in more parents has also contributed to the Wag Center’s success. The officers host workshops that teach parents and grandparents how to use computers, a skill that’s become increasingly necessary as their children sign on to social media and deal with issues like cyberbullying—and has paid off as parents face supporting home learning during the pandemic. Caregivers can join their kids for a Thursday activity series, learning alongside them as they make pizza or build robots. Then there’s Boo and the Badge, the center’s Halloween event that hosted more than 850 children in 2019, and their annual Easter egg hunt, which featured an astonishing one thousand eggs in 2018. All told, there are endless ways that the Wag Center gives children and families a place to be together.

Given that, it should come as no surprise that PRIME TIME has been so popular at the substation. The program not only gets children excited about reading, but it also gives parents guidance on how to encourage reading at home. Lt. Brooks knows firsthand that parents become as engrossed in the stories as their children and take the books home to read with them time and time again.

“It’s making a difference,” said Lt. Brooks. “I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t.”

As for what’s next for the Wag Center, they’ll keep hosting PRIME TIME for as long as they can. Lt. Brooks and Lt. Tureau are always bouncing ideas off of each other, searching for the next workshop or event that will be a hit with the neighborhood. If they see a need, they try to fill it. That’s one of the benefits of working in uncharted waters.

“We’re up for anything,” said Lt. Tureau.

“The possibilities are endless with this place,” added Lt. Brooks. “Our imaginations run wild.”

PRIME TIME is continuously monitoring public health and safety mandates associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. While many spring programs were forced to close early, programmatic innovations and delivery adjustments will provide ongoing support for our target audiences. Fall 2020 program applicants can learn more about hosting PRIME TIME by visiting www.primetimefamily.org.

Morgan Randall is a writer exploring the relationships between people, the environment, and business. You can find her at morganeliserandall.com.