Who knew a bit of fatherly advice 15 years ago could lead to Union County Sheriff’s Deputy Tressa Hester’s being voted 2014 D.A.R.E. Officer of the Year for Mississippi.
But that, indirectly, is what happened.
In 1999, when she was offered a job as dispatcher for the sheriff’s department, she didn’t want to take it.
“I turned it down,” she said. “I was working at Piper and it meant a severe decrease in pay if I took it and I thought, ‘I can’t do that.’”
But she talked with her dad, Alton Smith, about it a lot. “He would never tell you what to do but he would let you know,” she said. “If you don’t take it, you will look back someday and regret that you didn’t,” he told her.
So take the job, she did.
Tressa (pronounced like “Teressa”) enjoyed the job but wanted to do some so she attended and graduated from the police academy in 2004, becoming a full deputy.
It was in 2007 that she began teaching D.A.R.E. classes and since then has influenced the lives of hundreds of Union County children. “I got certified in March 2007 and started in the fall,” she said.
Seven years later, she is being given the stop honor for her field in the entire state.
Most people are generally aware of the D.A.R.E. program. Its letters stand for Drug Abuse Resistance Education and the program was started by former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates as part of the War on Drugs in 1983. The program has expanded internationally and, here, targets elementary students. Classes deal with decision-making, peer pressure, drug dangers and other topics that are relevant.
Hester usually teaches two classes a semester, always to fifth-graders, but would like to start a middle school program if time and scheduling could ever be worked out.
“To do D.A.R.E. teaching you have to have at least two years experience as an officer,” Hester said. Then the officer has to undergo 80 hours of training over two weeks. Training is upgraded during the annual state meetings.
Hester was selected for the state honor from among about 150 D.A.R.E. officer-instructors. Some counties have D.A.R.E. programs, some cities do and sometimes both, she said. Currently, New Albany does not have a D.A.R.E. program but Hester does teach in the four county schools.
She is certified to teach Kindergarten through fifth grades but always does the fifth grade. “D.A.R.E. America stresses working with young kids,” she said, “before middle school where they face different challenges.”
Is the program valuable?
“Students love it,” she said. “Kids come up even after the fifth and sixth grades wanting another program. If I did a middle school program I would like to do sixth grade.” However, she adds, that would mean teaching almost every day of the week.
Now, she teaches two days a week but has to plan material on at least another day in addition to taking care of her other duties as deputy sheriff.
“Teachers always support it (D.A.R.E.); principals too,” she added. “The students are always in a tight schedule but they always fit me in,” she said.
Hester gets a lot of support from parents, too. “Sometimes I will come in and there is a note from parents thanking me for something where I didn’t have a clue,” she said. “One thing really special is a message – I kept it. This lady came to see me and I was not here so she left me a message. She said that maybe by teaching her daughter at school I might have saved one of her friend’s lives.”
Hester just learned of her selection as D.A.R.E. Officer of the Year this past week.
“I found out this past Tuesday when the president of Mississippi D.A.R.E. called,” she said. Normally, state coordinator Sherry Hall of Lee County might have called but she is out of the country.
“After the call I was real surprised,” she said. “That’s when I thought back about when Daddy was living.”
“He passed away when I was still dispatching so he never got to see this but said, ‘You never know what doors will open up.’”
Hester was nominated by Sheriff Jimmy Edwards.
“I did nominate her,” he said. “I told of how she teaches at all four schools and after graduation she will bring a group in to tour the jail, then go bowling.”
“She is very active with the senior citizens group and does the grant for that,” Edwards said. “She helps with SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), fingerprints children at the hospital at the annual health fair and helps keep up with the emergency phone checks.” The SADD activities mean bringing city and county students together once a year for a big meeting and meal at the fairgrounds, which she organizes and gets grant money to pay for.
In addition to her duties as deputy, she also serves civil papers, he said. “She is involved in lots of activities, the kids like her. I’m tickled she won. We’re very proud of her.”
Once a D.A.R.E. officer is nominated, the state coordinator gets all the information out about the nominees and all the D.A.R.E. officers in the state vote on them, Hester said.
She will be recognized at the state conference July 20-24, but she has the option of formally being presented with the award here and that is what she is choosing. “I can still go to Biloxi but here all the kids and grandkids can come when they wouldn’t be able to go to Biloxi,” she said. She and her husband, Rickey, have a daughter, Angela Black, and son, Joey Hester, as well as grandchildren.
No date for the presentation here has been set.
Hester may be the teacher in the classes, but she said she learns almost every day as well. Part of each class is asking students to write essays about some of the principles they learn in the program.
“Some of the D.A.R.E. essays have been amazing,” she said. “Students will share things with you. They feel comfortable and that they can trust you so they share things they might not share with someone else. A lot of students really open up.”
“It’s nice to love what you do,” she said. “It seems like you’re not going to work.”
Hester has no plans to stop teaching D.A.R.E. classes and is preparing for the fall. “That’s if no other door opens up,” she added.
“It’s a rewarding job, it really is,” she said. “In this line of work, not everything you do is good or pleasant. I’ve got the best job down here.”
“It is a good program, something we are proud of and we hope something with stick with them,” Sheriff Edwards said.