For almost a decade, the Explorer program has not only given young men and women in the city of Madera a chance to try their hand at a potential career path, but also a chance to develop into leaders.
The Explorer program, sponsored through the Boy Scouts of America, gives teenagers and young adults (ages 14 through 21) an opportunity to get an idea of what career path they might wish to take. The program “explores” dozens of different career paths, including law enforcement.
Madera’s police Explorers participate in a variety of activities, including competitions that mimic tests that they would take at a police academy. They also do some minor police work, minus the danger.
Although there is no expectation for Explorers to continue with a law enforcement career, Detective Matthew Sauceda, the current director of the program, said that many Explorers hope to, and often do, move on to become police officers.
Officer Elizabeth Huerta is one of those people.
Initially Huerta had no interest in law enforcement. In high school, Huerta hoped to be a fashion designer. When being a fashion designer didn’t seem like the right fit for her, Huerta was encouraged to apply for the Explorer program by a friend who also applied.
What began as a whim became a passion, thanks to former Madera Police officer Bill Spears, an Explorer advisor who Huerta credits with inspiring her to take on a job in law enforcement.
“He completely changed my career focus,” Huerta said. “He was the main advisor when I started the program. The way he carried himself, the way he ran the program, you didn’t want to be him, but you wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
Huerta spent four years in the Explorer program and then entered the police academy as a cadet. Now, at just 21 years old, Huerta has been an officer for a year, and is following in Spears’ footsteps as an Explorer advisor herself.
“I love teaching what I’ve learned,” Huerta said. “I’ve only been on the job for a year, so I’m still learning. I help kids understand what I’ve been through, and I’ve grown up with a lot of these kids I’m now teaching, so I have that connection with them. It’s crazy being on the other side, teaching, instead of being an Explorer.”
Huerta believes that being an Explorer was a vital part of her high school years.
“I was, you know, a kid when I joined the program, and I learned a ton of things,” Huerta said. “The main thing was responsibility, and also self-confidence.”
Huerta noted the camaraderie she had (and still has) with her fellow Explorers was the favorite part of her time in the program.
“You grow with your peers. I still have friends from my time at the program, some from other programs that I met at Explorer competitions,” Huerta said.
Explorer Rudy Hernandez echoes Huerta’s sentiment.
“Building character as a person, building responsibility, being able to present yourself in a professional manner, and being a leader, I learned all of this from being an Explorer,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez, 19, has been in the Explorer program for six years. Much like Huerta, Hernandez joined the program because of a friend’s recommendation, and quickly found his calling.
“The most rewarding part for me is just being around the officers and being in the department,” Hernandez said. “The environment alone is just so positive, and I like being able to interact with the officers.”
Some of Hernandez’s favorite moments from being an Explorer also come from the competitions.
“The competitions are really the main thing I enjoy,” Hernandez said. “Going out and getting involved with other Explorer programs throughout the state, and meeting people who get invited and come out to these events across California. You get to learn about other Explorer programs, and get to see how they run their scenarios as compared to how we run ours, and it makes you have an open mind and shows you other ways to do things.”
Police Chief Steve Frazier had nothing but praise for the program.
“I think the Explorer program is a great program that introduces participants to police culture and giving them skill sets that will assist them in a future in law enforcement as well as any endeavor they may pursue,” Frazier said.
The chief noted the success of Huerta and said that the department “would love the opportunity to continue to draw from our Explorer program.”
For Sauceda, he says that being able to watch his Explorers grow into professional adults is really the most rewarding part of his job.
“I’ve been a member of this department for a long time, for 14 years,” Sauceda said. “I’ve been able to watch some of these kids grow and move into officer positions, and see some that are right on the cusp of joining a police department, hopefully ours. I think that’s the greatest thing I get out of it. Watching these kids succeed, and knowing that we were there to give them a helping hand and assist them in whatever it is they choose to be.”
Kiku Gross is a student in Gary Rice’s community journalism class at California State University, Fresno.