Project SEARCH Interns Select Officer as Mentor of the Year
Life on duty looks a little different than it once did for Northern Essex Community College Police Officer Peter Sheldon. The retired Portsmouth Police detective used to spend his days investigating fraud and financial crimes. He mostly worked alone, mostly in his office all day.
When he retired, he knew he wanted to do something different. And he found that by returning to where his law enforcement career started. Officer Sheldon grew up in Georgetown and, after time in the Marines, enrolled at Northern Essex as a criminal justice major. He then transferred to UMass Lowell to complete his bachelor’s degree.
So, in some ways, he knew what to expect when he joined the NECC Police Department nearly a year ago: patrolling tree-lined streets, helping to keep the order at on-campus events, maybe escorting an NECC athletic team returning from a national tournament. What he didn’t expect was the unique bonds he’d form with some integral members of the NECC community.
“He brightens up my day every time with his jokes and optimistic personality.” -Thomas V.
“Peter is a wonderful man to me and he’s always there when we need him. Peter gives me doughnuts, he makes us laugh, and he loves the Muppets. I think we are lucky to have him as our favorite police officer of the college.” – Cameron A.
“Peter was nice, and he was so helpful. He gave me good compliments and good advice to have each day.” – Ali D.
Those were just some of the sentiments expressed by the Project SEARCH interns when they recently honored Officer Sheldon with the “Mentor of the Year Award.”
Project SEARCH is a business-led internship program that prepares people with intellectual and developmental disabilities for secure, integrated, competitive employment. It is run by Opportunity Works, a local nonprofit agency that started partnering with the college in 2014. Participants begin and end each day with work readiness classes covering topics like job interviews, résumé writing, teamwork, professionalism, and technology in the workplace. In between classroom learning, students spend their time interning in different Northern Essex departments.
“I had just been hired, on August first, when Chief Dave Hobbs asked me about working with the Project SEARCH interns,” remembers Officer Sheldon. “I had no idea what that would entail, but I thought, ‘I’m going to jump in with both feet and be involved.’”
Soon, Officer Sheldon met his first intern, David. And the two became like partners.
“My idea was to make the internship more like a ride-along. Each Friday, we would patrol in the cruiser. We would make observations and talk about what we saw.”
That also gave them plenty of time to get to know each other. “I would ask him about pets or what he did yesterday, the same conversations I would have with a partner. It was that personal connection I’d been missing.”
Once David completed his internship, Michael took over as Officer Sheldon’s Friday partner/intern. “We talked about sports, and I learned a lot about his family. Especially his brothers.”
Officer Sheldon didn’t limit his time to just the interns assigned to him. Throughout the year, he got to know the other Project SEARCH participants. He noticed they would gather in the lobby of the C Building on the Haverhill Campus each morning before class. So, one day he asked if they’d like it if he brought in some doughnuts. “This one intern, Cam, who lives rent-free in my mind, replied, ‘Who doesn’t like doughnuts?’ Just so matter of fact. And this is a small example of breaking down the perceptions that I had, and it really opened me up to who they are.”
Doughnuts gave way to the occasional lunchtime pizza and afternoon chats with the group as they waited for transportation back to Opportunity Works. “They were the Bus Stop Bunch,” says Officer Sheldon, about the affectionate moniker he bestowed them. “In that environment, they were more relaxed. We had a lot of good-natured fun and had a lot of great conversations.”
Even though the connection between officer and interns was clear to even the casual observer, Officer Sheldon says he was surprised- and touched- when he learned he was going to be honored with the Project SEARCH “Mentor of the Year Award.”
“I don’t feel like a mentor,” he says. “I learned as much from them as they learned from me!”
At the May ceremony, interns shared why they selected Officer Sheldon for the honor:
“Peter, thank you for everything you did for us. I appreciate you and hope we will see you again soon.” – David T.
“Thank you, Peter, for all the great things you did to show your support and appreciation for our program. You were a wonderful support to your interns and everyone in our group. We loved and appreciated the donuts (especially the strawberry sprinkle), pizza parties, and all your great efforts of support, and we thank you so much.” – Katie C.
Officer Sheldon says he wasn’t quite prepared for how special the moment would be. “They had all written a speech. It was a real heartwarming surprise. I was blown away.”
“The individuals who make up the whole mean so much,” he continues. “Something inside of me changed. They made an indelible mark on me as a person.”
Learn more about Opportunity Works, its history, and its successful Project SEARCH program by visiting opportunityworks.org.