South Modesto families came for the festival feel and free food, but between bites of donated hot dogs and chips came safety tips from the 911 crews so often called to the neighborhood. On this night, engines and ambulances mustered good will and law enforcement relished being the good guys.
"This is a win-win for everybody," said Family Fun Night organizer Jorge Perez, who does community outreach for Modesto City Schools, the event's co-sponsor.
The safety fair kicked off a month of Friday- night events at the Apostolic Jubilee Center. This Friday the theme is Community Strength, featuring dozens of community organizations.
Pastor Ben Aguirre said the center holds the events "to provide an evening for the community, for kids to feel safe, have some fun and food."
Herbert Spencer, one of the center ministers, said the events started seven years ago with 60 or 70 attendees and have grown to more than 1,000 most nights. With the safety night, he said, "They'll know that if they need any help they can get it."
Tools of trade on display
Past the dinner line and the inflatable slide, K-9 units and equestrian patrols drew young admirers. An American Medical Response team let kids climb into the ambulance. Firefighters from the Modesto Regional Fire Authority gave tours of their engine, strategically parked for a speedy exit if needed.
First in a ring of law enforcement booths stood the SWAT wagon, its camo-wearing officers manning a table of de-fanged weapons and unwieldy protective gear. The guns are what the kids ask about the most, officer Doug Ridenour Jr. said.
"We get to show them our stuff. The kids enjoy it," he said between requests to sign "passports."
Kids who got their passport paper signed by all the booths were eligible for a prize drawing. Adolfo Ramos' paper was almost full as he handed it to Modesto police officers to sign. The 12-year-old said he's planning on a career in the military, or maybe the CIA. Safety night was right up his alley.
"I love it!" he said with a wide grin.
At the probation booth, a case full of examples of illicit drugs (all fake) offered parents an education on what's selling in Modesto these days. Lots of methamphetamine and a little black tar heroin are what law enforcement is seeing now, said supervising probation officer Belinda Putnam.
Officers at the table included those covering the south Modesto area who likely would be seeing some familiar faces, she said. But for her the evening was more about being seen.
"I like the fact we're visible. They have a chance to ask us what we do. To be real honest, probation does a lot," Putnam said. "We're enforcing the terms (of probation), but we also give them direction and guidance. We want to make sure they're successful," she said.
This year, Perez said, he asked for more female officers. "We're building positive role models for our little ones," he said.
Officers Christy Beffa and Heather Graves manned the MPD booth, handing out information on Neighborhood Watch, child safety pamphlets and coloring books.
At another booth was Manuel Rivera of United Hands, which organizes cleanup days and youth activities. For the neighborhood group, the evening was a way to involve more families.
"We want to get to know each other and build relationships. You could say we're about seeing things from a glass half-full perspective," Rivera said.
A few tables over, Tony Madrigal gathered names for free backpacks full of school supplies for an upcoming giveaway. He saw the evening as being about breaking down barriers.
"Just the presence of law enforcement in this fun, family setting. They start interacting with the families and that can lead to cooperation and solving crimes," he said. "There's no price you can put on that."
Family Fun Nights are 6:30-8:30 p.m. Fridays in July at the Apostolic Jubilee Center, 821 Lassen Ave.
July 19 will focus on health and fitness, offering free health screenings and a blood drive.
July 26 will be kids' day with games and activities.
For more, call Jorge Perez at (209) 595-9654.