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Being a law enforcement officer or investigator is more than wearing a badge and carrying a gun, particularly as it pertains to three employees of the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Office. It is about building productive relationships with youth in their dual roles as officers and coaches.

Sgt. Keith Parks, Sgt. John Stokes and Investigator Lakesha Gillard take pride in their roles as coaches at Hunter-Kinard-Tyler High School in Norway.

In those roles, the trio have provided not only discipline and leadership to the students they coach, but also a shoulder to lean on, a hand to lift them up or a smile to encourage them in life  and school as well as on the basketball court, the track and the football field.

H-K-T High School Principal Dr. Mark Dean said he is pleased with the OCSO coaches.

“They’re going a good job … . They show a positive side, and let the kids know that they care about things that they care about. They’re real people and not just law enforcement officers. It obviously helps them have that connection with kids that you don’t ordinarily see,” Dean said.

‘We mold young lives’

Parks has coached basketball, football and track at H-K-T High for the past two years, a job that he says has brought fulfilment to his life.

“I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. We didn’t have many role models growing up. I recognize the need to be able to service the children in a different light than just them seeing me in a uniform,” he said.

The 35-year-old often uses his own personal experience to mentor the youth.

“Growing up on the South Side, they always say you’ll be dead or in jail by 17,” Parks said, adding, however, that he went on to become a three-time college graduate.

“I was the first one in my family’s history to do that. So I just try to give (students) examples and show them that they, too, can do this,” he said.

Parks said that while he has to sometimes yell to get lessons across, “they get to see me laugh and love them a little bit extra outside of the uniform.”

“I understand that as a law enforcement officer, this is another way to create that positive change in our youth,” he said.

“I have kids who are dealing with issues that a child shouldn’t be dealing with come to me all the time. It’s like they’ve been dealt an unfair hand, but one of the things I try to do is say, ‘This is just where you are. This is just temporary,’” Parks said, noting that he encourages them to continue to focusing on their education and being a positive citizen.

“I tell them it’s never too late to do the right thing. I don’t care about how much trouble they’ve been in in their past. I don’t care how many times people have written them off,” he said.

Having played basketball since fourth grade, Parks was a good fit for the basketball program; however, Dean soon recruited him to coach in two other sports.

“We were doing things differently. I was checking grades to make sure the kids are eligible, making sure that their discipline is where it needs to be in order to participate in sports," the principal said. "So he (Parks) appreciated that approach of not just making it about sports, but about everyday life decisions."

Jordan Singleton, 15, one of Parks’ basketball players, said, “He just doesn’t coach. He gets us ready for life. It helps me a lot."

Parks said he appreciates the ability to mentor students on life skills, including drug and alcohol abuse prevention and staying away from gangs.

“We just really get to know the kids and show them that somebody does care about them. I may not be their biological dad, but I’m probably the only male figure that some of these kids will ever see in a positive light … . It’s about being able to relate to them on the level where they are,” he said. 

Parks is the father of a 16-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter.

He said his role as a coach helps to improve relationships between police officers and the community.

“It helps it just by being seen. The kids are recognizing a familiar face and knowing, ‘OK, yeah. Coach is a law enforcement officer, but coach also cares about me.’ Once you’re able to build a rapport with the kids and they know they can trust you, that’s how you’re able to diffuse a lot of situations,” Parks said.

His student-athletes already know that they are to use sports as a tool to help further their education and learn the value of teamwork.

“You see the growth. With my teams, I never once talk about wins and losses; however, I talk about wins and losses in the game of life daily. Those are the things that we focus on," Parks said.

“When I see a child that has mentally matured, that gives me all the satisfaction,” he said, noting that as a coach, he works on building mutual respect between himself and his student-athletes.

“I don’t ever have to cross into police mode while we’re dealing with sports. I talk to my teams about putting things in their proper place at the proper time," Parks said. "I think all the students on H-K-T’s campus can relate to me and I can relate to them."

Community-Oriented Policing is something the OCSO focuses on, he said.

“This is a business and is to be looked upon as a customer service because we are providing a service. So it’s very important that we interact and mold young lives,” Parks said.

‘Not just people with a badge and gun’

Stokes has coached varsity football at H-K-T High for three years. The 42-year-old, however, has been around football for a while.

“My old high school coach got a head coaching job back in ‘95. And while I was still working, I was able to go with him every Friday. I was able to go to the coaches’ meetings on Sunday after church,” he said.

The Bamberg native, who has been with the OCSO for nearly 15 years, said coaching helps open up lines of communication between himself and his players.

“A lot of times is gives them a little bit better understanding of where we come from and our concerns, but I also get a better understanding of where they come from and some concerns they have regarding law enforcement,” Stokes said.

He added, “We have to be a little bit more open to hear what they’re saying and also understand what we do on a daily basis. We’re still people. We’re not just people who walk around with a badge and a gun.

“At the end of the day, I still got to be a father, a husband and a son. I’m still a person regardless of what my job is," Stokes said. "We still have feelings like everybody else.”

He is the father of three children ages 12, 9 and 5.

His favorite part of coaching?

“It’s just being able to see young guys turn into men and grow up. You get to see them mature from freshmen to their senior year. And after that, you see them having families,” Stokes said, adding that it's nice to have had “a little impact” on their lives as a coach.

“You try to instill discipline more than anything and, a lot of times, self-confidence. Some of the kids don’t have a lot of self-confidence,” he said.

While some students are shy and not very talkative in the beginning, “as they buy into the team concept, they become more open, and a lot of times it helps with their home lives,” Stokes said.

Football and other sports help instill a sense of accountability in students, he said.

“You have to be accountable. You have to be a team player. I always tell the kids that at some point, you’re gonna have to answer to somebody whether it’s a teacher, coach or boss … and learn how to follow instructions from some type of authority figure,” Stokes said.

Sometimes a football coach can become closer than a parent to a child, he said.

“Some of the kids come from single-parent homes. A lot of times, some of these kids don’t have a positive male role model. Even in my case, I had a positive role model in my father, but I had a football coach. He is really one of the biggest impacts on my life. I could have been in trouble like everybody else,” Stokes said. “Even though I had a father in my life, I was able to talk to that football coach about things that I couldn’t talk to Daddy about.”

He said he is seen less as a police officer on the field than he is as just “Coach.”

He said being a police officer doesn’t necessarily make it easier to instill discipline, but added, “I can’t turn a blind eye for nothing.”

“It’s hard sometimes but at the end of the day, it’s still the same little issues like everybody have. I don’t think the kids care. If a kid is gonna do something, he’s gonna do something regardless," Stokes said.

“In my case, I really see sometimes they will stop to think about what they’re doing before they act,” he said.

It's important to keep children occupied with positive activities – and not just football, Stokes said.

“I give a lot of time, especially with football. It’s pretty much a year-long process … and sometimes, it gives parents breaks. They know (their children are) safe with us. In these days and times, we need to keep our kids more occupied doing any type of sport or activity,” he said.

The officer said he is thankful for Sheriff Leroy Ravenell and his supervisor, Lt. James Shumpert, for allowing him the flexibility to serve as a football coach.

“Our administration is really supportive of us as far as allowing us to do this. I really appreciate that,” Stokes said.

‘I try to do whatever I can for them’

Gillard is a soft-spoken yet no-nonsense investigator with the sheriff’s office. She is also an assistant basketball coach for the H-K-T High varsity  girls' basketball team. She said she always tries to perform her duties with heart and passion for her players and their overall development.

The 42-year-old, who has worked at the OCSO for seven years, refers to her players as “her girls” and is no stranger to basketball.

“This is my second season with them. I did two seasons at Scotts Branch (High School), and I volunteered on and off with Claflin University when Coach Miriam Samuels was the head coach,” said Gillard, a Vance native.

“I’ve been playing ball since I was 8 years old. I played ball in high school, college and two years of semi-pro. So basketball is something that I really enjoy doing," she said.

She said hopes she is making a positive impact in her players’ lives.

“You have teenagers that are basically transitioning from high school to college. I try to pretty much impart as much knowledge and wisdom on them to prepare them for the next level,” Gillard said.

Seventeen-year-old Shontayja Smalls, one of Gillard’s basketball players, said, “Coach Gilliard has been one of the most helpful coaches. I definitely look up to her as a role model. She always shows us that she cares."

The job is not without its hurdles.

“There is a gap between them and me as far as age. So, getting to understand the culture of this generation can be a little challenging at times," Gillard said. "But I think I've got a good rapport, a good relationship with the girls. They call me for things when they’re having problems and issues."

She said she takes pride in having her players feel comfortable enough with her to share their thoughts and feelings on and off the court.

“Kids nowadays, one, they don’t like the police and, two, you’re an adult and some kids feel you wouldn’t understand them. I’m grateful that my girls feel that they can come to me with their issues and talk to me. Some of them call me 'auntie,'” she said, smiling.

Gillard added, “They look at me as a big sister, and I just think it’s awesome. I try to do whatever I can for them. We had a couple of girls to get injured on the team and because of resources with the school, a lot of them don’t have access to different types of therapy when they need it.”

That's where she often steps in, she said.

“I take them to the doctor on my own. I've got a little bit of connections so I can get them in and the doctor will see them for little to no cost. Anything that I can do for the program, I do my best,” Gillard said.

The Orangeburg resident said she knows how to mix discipline with fun.

“They have gotten accustomed to my personality. I kind of take pride in being a disciplinarian. That’s how I was raised. My dad was in the military and also law enforcement," she said.

“But they know when I’m serious, they know when I’m playing around and they respect that,” she said, noting that it’s all about relationship building.

“I believe once you build a relationship with kids, they get to the point where they don’t want to let you down. So I think that helps a lot with us being in the community and having constant contact and communication with them about things good, bad and indifferent," Gillard said.

“They pretty much walk the straight line. The biggest things kids want to know is that you care," she said. "Once they find out that you care, it pretty much changes their own demeanor and personality."

Contact the writer: dgleaton@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5534. Follow "Good News with Gleaton" on Twitter @DionneTandD.

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Staff Writer

Dionne Gleaton has been a staff writer with The T&D for 20 years. She has been an education reporter, regional reporter and currently writes features with an emphasis on health.

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