When news broke of his sister’s death in a park in Alexandria’s West End, the emotional scars he was left with were searing. Disoriented by the loss of his sister, he was drawn to dark places and found himself on the edge. Were it not for the solace he found in slicing a soccer ball across the field with a couple of older players, he might have gone there.
One year later, shoring him up at a private remembrance of his sister, were those same soccer players who had picked him up and provided a safe space to heal. They were school resource officers at T.C. Williams High School — Officers Gary Argueta and Johnny Larios.
Officers Argueta and Larios recently swapped their t-shirts, sweatpants and soccer cleats for their formal dress blues to be honored at a luncheon by the Optimist Club of Alexandria for their work in mentoring T.C. students and collaborating with City agencies and groups to support their work. In a formal dining room accented with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the rolling hills of the golf course at the Belle Haven Country Club, they deflected questions about themselves and instead told stories of the students with whom they have formed life-changing bonds.
A tenth grader deflated by a recent breakup, a senior inflamed by social media trolls or a lone freshman tucked away in the corner of the cafeteria staring out at clusters of friends — these are the students with whom they wanted to connect and whom they wanted to help connect with others. Armed with a soccer ball, an open field and a calling to make a difference, they created an environment where students could not only burn off energy and stress, but talk through their problems and worries as well.
Argueta and Larios see themselves reflected in the myriad of faces streaming through the halls at T.C., particularly in the International Academy. And, they know something many of these students have yet to learn — engaging in risky behavior sometimes leads to devastating consequences for students like them, and could affect their ability to stay in this country.
These kids don’t see that getting caught up in a tussle at school or on the street can have very different consequences for them than it might for others. They have so much to gain here at T.C., but they also have everything to lose if they make bad choices,” said Officer Argueta.
What started as sideline chats on the edge of the field about a spat between friends led to quick texts for advice on how to help a friend or deal with a family situation. Today there’s a steady stream of students poking their heads into the SRO office at T.C. — sometimes for a quick hello, sometimes to check in and sometimes for a little help reigning things in. The trust that has developed between students and the officers now extends to officers in the community and to the adults with whom the officers associate as well.
Students who find themselves in a conflict with another or bearing the weight of deciding what they’ll do after graduation have a safe place to talk through their struggles. And, because of the relationships developed on the field, they’ve now learned to trust other adults at T.C. and the community who are there to help.
They call us their older brothers. We know the lingo. We can relate. Only about 10 percent of what we do with these kids is about soccer. The rest is about mentorship, making smart choices and choosing another way,” said Officer Larios.
Argueta, whose mom is a D.C. police officer, is an Air Force veteran who was a dedicated crew chief for the RQ-4B reconnaissance aircraft. A second generation American of Guatemalan descent, Argueta can readily spot newly arrived students who might long for a chance to kick a ball around as a way to make friends. Although Larios was also born in the U.S. his sister was born in Mexico. Seeing how hard it was for his sister to grow roots here drove him to want to help T.C. students in a way he wished others had helped his sister.
Together they’ve partnered with community agencies such as the Alexandria Soccer Association and the Alexandria Police Foundation, along with school social workers to make sure these students know they have options and to help them make good choices. They are working on growing today’s students into tomorrow’s mentors, rallying more adults to coach and generating a pipeline of future soccer players with college scholarship potential.
They’d like to see more female students get involved with the game and come to see them in the SRO office as big brothers, like the male students do. They are conscious about how those interactions could be perceived by some, but not enough to discourage them from lending an ear to a female student when they need it. They’re aiming to bring some big sister mentors on to coach and provide a safe haven as well.
As the days grow shorter and the chill sets in for the season, the two swap their gear once again — this time for futsal, indoor soccer played on a hardcourt. Bringing the game indoors over the winter means they are there for students when more than just the weather gets tough.