Police officers have a pretty bad reputation these days, and get little thanks for their job. The men and women of Pekin, Illinois though, know for a fact they have one local kid who is very appreciative of their service. Fifth grader Braden Garnett knows what it’s like to feel rejected for something you have no control over.
Doctors diagnosed Braden at an early age with Asperger’s, dyslexia and a condition that causes the misalignment of his eyes. This has made Braden a go-to target for schoolyard bullying and cruel name-calling. “I struggle because people are calling me names. I’m bullied constantly,” Braden told CNN. “Telling me I’m a cross-eyed freak, and I’m not good at kickball.”
The 11-year-old has had more than one birthday party where only one or two classmates showed up. Braden’s mother wanted to make sure her son’s 11th birthday would be different, and planned a paintball party he’d remember, this time for the good reasons.
When the party date drew closer and only two of Braden’s 36 classmates had RSVP’d, she sent an email to the local police department explaining the situation, and telling them how happy it would make her son if an officer could surprise Braden at his paintball party. The email found its way to Detective Mike Eeten, who spread the word and rounded up a squad of officers for the event. “I know the birthday parties where only one or two kids show up,” said Police Chief John Dossey, whose own son is autistic.
On the day of Braden’s party, more than a dozen officers and firefighters, as well as Pekin Mayor John McCabe, showed up for the event. And if a surprise visit from Perkin’s finest wasn’t enough, the officers brought along the department K-9 and even pitched in to buy Braden a gift. Appropriately enough, a Lego police station set.
“It was a special moment to see a kid who sounds like he’s got a rough go of things. Just my presence, just my police car, the lights, the uniform, to put a smile on his face, I mean, it was one of the biggest smiles I’ve seen in a long time” said Officer Guerra.
The gesture resulted in a day where for once, Braden’s mother didn’t have to worry about her son feeling rejected. “There were no social struggles,” Carrie Garnett said. “The day was all about him and his happiness.” The day had a huge impact on the birthday boy who was all smiles. “I’ve never had that much people show up at a birthday party,” said Braden.
Braden stopped by the station the following day to thank the officers for their attendance and let them know how appreciative he was.
As for Braden’s classmates who didn’t attend, Braden’s mother said the experience “made a big difference socially.” She went on to say how the support from the police shifted the behavior of some of his classmates. “Now that all the kids and staff at the school have seen the videos of it, they are giving him some positive attention that he is handling wonderfully. He is absolutely glowing from it all.”
For Detective Eeten, the event was important too. Not only did he get to help ensure a bullied child had a happy birthday, but it helped remind the community of a side of the police that is often forgotten. “It helps put things into perspective into why we’re here. It’s a bigger story, for him to be able to see just what police are here for,” said Detective Eeten. “We are people. Just like him. Real struggles, you know. Real feelings. And real families.”