A partnership forged while patrolling streets in San Diego’s South Bay sparked an idea for San Diego police officers Aida Liufau and Esmeralda Sanchez.
"We would go to radio calls where we started to see the common theme of girls not making the best choices," said Sanchez, a Community Relations Officer for the San Diego Police Department (SDPD).
Sanchez said some of those choices included inappropriate behavior on social media, skipping school, staying out past curfew, and going to parties in Tijuana.
"There are all these resources for young ladies and juveniles who are at-risk. But we want to get to them before they get to at-risk," said Liufau.
"Ever since Captain Rudy Tai was here (Captain Tai is currently assigned to Operational Support), the emphasis in community policing came about, and we really wanted to get back to that, to get back to the grassroots of it," Liufau added.
Liufau and Sanchez each grew up with strong female role models and continue to have a lot of support from other women.
Thus, with that common thread and vision to help girls in the community, a new “squad” was born.
The officers wanted to mentor girls and teach them life skills in a setting where the girls could talk openly about their problems.
"We want to be somebody that they can run to when they're in need, not to run away from," said Liufau, who also serves on SDPD's Juvenile Services Team.
"When people see us coming, they don't see us as a person, they just see us as a uniform," explained Liufau. "We walk into a room, and they're like, 'What happened?' It's always a negative. We just want to emphasize, we're just here, we want to come say hi.”
The officers reached out to the YMCA and met with school counselors in Otay Mesa, San Ysidro, and Nestor to get the word out about their group, the "Southern Division Girl Squad."
As they reviewed applications and interviewed candidates to join their program, the officers learned all of the girls wanted to work on public speaking and self-esteem.
In July 2016, Sanchez and Liufau started "Southern Division Girl Squad" with 15 girls.
Liufau and Sanchez, along with other SDPD female officers and sergeants, led the monthly group meetings at SDPD's Southern Division.
Quickly, their time with the girls in the group began to make an impression.
"We learned a lot about body positivity and self-image, so we became more confident," said participant Lourdes Guerrero. "We learned about the real world."
Guerrero's mother, Isabel Alcala, said she has noticed her daughter is less shy after joining Girl Squad last year.
Another participant, Clarissa Valdez, said the group meetings helped her speak up more frequently.
"If I hadn't been in the girl squad I probably wouldn't be speaking right now," said Valdez. "But they've taught me how just to be myself and just be out there."
Many of the girls and their family members said they were also pleasantly surprised with their new perspective of police officers after getting to know them in this type of setting.
"We've seen them in a totally different light. They had to create and think of the things they were going to be doing with the girls," said Alcala. "It wasn't just a job with them. It was about much more. You could feel it."
This month, the seven of the 15 girls who stayed with the program for the entire year graduated in front of their families.
During a special ceremony hosted by Southern Division, and attended by members of SDPD command staff, the seven girls accepted their flowers and certificates with feelings of pride and accomplishment.
They are also keeping in mind the big task they now have ahead of them.
"I'm going to go back and mentor now, and help other girls, in the way that the police officers helped me, just gain more positivity with self-esteem," said Valdez.
And for Sanchez and Liufau, the end of their inaugural program is the start of something new.
"This will be the beginning of a great mentorship and friendship that we can have with the girls," said Sanchez. "So it's not the end of the program, that's it, you're off on your own. This is going to be the beginning of a relationship with them."
The officers are now reviewing candidates for the next squad session, which starts next month.
"We want girls that want to be here, that aren't made by their parents to be here," said Liufau. "We want those girls that want to learn more about themselves, and grow as an individual, and gain those basic life skills, that confidence, that interaction with other people, and that want to give back to their community."