Things began to turn around for Anthony Valdez after he met Omaha Police Sgt. Jim Pauly.
Valdez was in fifth grade and living with his mother and four brothers at the Open Door Mission when he met Pauly.
The two were paired up at the Omaha Police Officers Association's annual Santa Cop event that takes homeless children on a holiday shopping spree with a police officer.
Valdez got to ride in Pauly's cruiser; met his former canine partner, Koko; and spent a $100 gift card as they shopped together.
“I felt like it was so much money, my dream come true,” said Valdez, now 18 and a senior at Omaha Christian Academy. “You could go into a store and go crazy.”
The Omaha police union held this year's Santa Cop event last week. Officers took about 50 children from the Open Door Mission to Walmart, where each of the kids got a $100 gift card to spend on holiday gifts for themselves and their families.
The gift cards came from money raised by union members as well as a $4,000 donation from Walmart, said Sgt. John Wells, the union president.
Police said the event gives officers a chance to connect with homeless children in the hope that they will make a difference.
A few months after Valdez and Pauly met, their paths crossed again at an Easter event at the Open Door Mission. The two bonded.
After that, Pauly and a man he once mentored, Erin McCord, who runs a Council Bluffs paint business, began mentoring Valdez.
“Over the years, we included Anthony in everything we do,” Pauly said. “Out of the blue, he'll call. About a month ago, he came by and we had dinner.”
Valdez and his family moved to the Omaha area from California when he was a child. Times were tough for them. They lost their apartment because they couldn't pay the rent.
So they moved into the Open Door Mission, living there for the better part of four years.
During that time, Valdez got to know Pauly better. They volunteered at events together, went camping, played paintball and did other things. It was fun, and Valdez began to have hope that his family would be OK.
As time passed, the Valdez family began to get back on its feet with the help of the Open Door Mission and the family's church. Today the family lives in a house, and Valdez attends Omaha Christian Academy, with help from church donations.
“It was a rough road for a while,” Valdez said. “But things got better.”
A lot of those changes he credits to his relationship with Pauly, whom he considers a friend and a role model.
“He's a really good guy, and I can talk to him about things,” Valdez said.
Valdez is on the school track team. He is looking at colleges and hopes to decide on one soon. He has even considered a career in law enforcement, but hasn't made up his mind yet.
Pauly said watching Valdez succeed over the years has made their connection at Santa Cop even more special eight years later.
“We get to see eight years later that it had an impact,” he said. “The day I lose compassion for people is the day I take off my badge.”
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