Skokie police officer Mario Valenti is changing the perception of police in his community with a little compassion, and $150.
Valenti was recently called to X-Sport Fitness in Skokie, Ill., over a teen who was repeatedly sneaking into the facility without a membership, but instead of arresting 15-year-old Vincent Gonzales on trespassing charges, he opted instead to buy the boy a $150 short-term membership, the Chicago Tribune reports.
“I thought I was going to be arrested at the time,” said Gonzales, who continued to visit the facility to play basketball with his friends long after his mother’s membership expired. “I was very surprised. I want to say thank you.”
Gonzales, a sophomore at Uplift Community High School in Chicago, told the Tribune he was repeatedly busted sneaking in over several months before officials called the police. Valenti’s response, he said, was unexpected.
“It changes how I view police a lot, actually,” Gonzales said. “Now, I know there are some bad cops and some good. There’s a mixture. I used to think all cops were bad.”
His mother, Cynthia Jones, told the Tribune she was equally shocked by Valenti’s generosity.
“Oh my God, I was so surprised, so grateful, it brought tears to my eyes, that someone—a stranger—actually did something like that,” Jones said.
“I’ve had bad experiences with the police in the past—my family and people that I know,” she said. “You just never know. You have to judge somebody for that whey do and not put them in a group of people. Yeah, there are good people out there.”
Valenti said when he realized Gonzales was a “good kid” who simply wanted to play basketball, buying the boy a membership just seemed like “it was the right thing to do.”
“Honestly, I’ve been dealing with kids for over 20 years, and the worst thing for a teenager is idle time,” he said. “Obviously, he was drawn to this club, and he wanted to play basketball there, his friends were there. Having him on the street versus having him in the basketball court at X-Sport, it just seemed like the best thing to do. If it meant dip into my pocket for a little bit of money, you know, it was just the right thing to do.”
Valenti said the response from the public and the media has been “overwhelming.”
X-Sport ultimately chipped in to offer Gonzalez a full two-year membership, and news of Valenti’s kindness has since mushroomed into something much bigger.
“It’s been unbelievable so far—the output from the community and everyone who’s contacted us,” X-Sport Fitness manager Justin Pritchett told the Tribune. “We’ve had people from all across the nation, from all different states, all different media” respond.
Pritchett said a federal officer called the facility to donate a membership to another youngster who can’t afford one, and others wanted to reimburse Valenti for his contribution, though Skokie police nixed that idea.
Several callers told Pritchett “they think it’s absolutely one of the most wonderful stories they’ve heard in a long time.”
X-Sport is also now working with Skokie police to create a partnership program to help youth gain memberships at the fitness chain.
The character of public servants can have a tremendous impact on communities, and character formation takes many adults from different parts of a community focused on the formation of youth.
“Moral education can work where the community, and schools and other institutions within it, share a moral culture that is integrated and mutually reinforcing; where the social networks of adult authority are strong, united, and consistent in articulating moral ideals and their attending virtues; and where adults maintain a ‘caring watchfulness’ over all aspects of a young person’s maturation,” James Davison Hunter writes in The Tragedy of Moral Education in America.
The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues offers a framework for schools to strategize about the community building process, focusing on connections with community groups, businesses, other schools, and universities.