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Community Heroes: NYPD Sgt. James Clarke takes Community Affairs to another level

Community Heroes: NYPD sgt. making a difference in many young lives
Community Heroes: NYPD sgt. making a difference in many young lives 04:25

NEW YORK - CBS2 is shining a spotlight on community heroes, because we are #BetterTogether.

NYPD Sergeant James Clarke is dedicated to helping young people all across New York City. He works in the Community Affairs Bureau and has been on the job for 40 years.

"He's, like, basically a grandfather to me, because my dad wasn't there. So I got most of this from, one, my pastor, and two, Sergeant Clarke. That's why I love this guy so much," 14-year-old Joshua Poellnitz said. 

Poellnitz is one of many kids who love Clarke. He has spent decades working with  young people, and getting them involved in the many youth programs offered by the NYPD.  

Every summer he runs the Youth Police Academy, which is a free program for local kids. But when COVID-19 hit in 2020, everything shut down, including the camp.

"I had built up such a great rapport with the parents over the years, they were calling me and they sounded kind of desperate. You know, what am I going to do with my child for the summer, what are we going to do with them, they have been hibernating all winter because of this COVID," Clarke said.

Clarke came up with a low-budget Youth Police Academy using his own money. He and the kids would  meet up outside a local school and often head to a nearby park.

"Go there, do our exercise. I would have guest speakers maybe come in and talk about gangs or drugs or anything they were interested in also, and then play sports," Clarke said. 

He tried to find free events around the area to take the kids. They rode the Staten Island Ferry, took a walk on Coney Island and went to the Bronx Zoo.

"I thought it was very brave of him, because usually you have a whole bunch of school security and cops running the camp, and then he just out of nowhere took it upon himself that one summer just to do it on his own," 15-year-old Aleyah Lee said. 

"I remember us working out. I remember us having fun and having some laughs and being very disciplined," Aleyah's 13-year-old brother Cameron said. 

Sergeant Clarke also works on helping the kids break down barriers and stereotypes. When Asian hate crimes spiked, he took them to an Asian community to talk about it. They also went to a synagogue and learned about antisemitic attacks, as well as a mosque where they visited with some in the Muslim community. 

"Just to show our young people, yes, we're different, but we're the same," Clarke said. "People have to realize, yes, we all are different, but we have so many more things in common than we do differences."

Clarke's relationship with these kids goes well beyond the job.

"These young people have called me up, 'Sergeant, I'm going to graduate, could you be at my graduation.' One young lady asked me to drive her to the prom, so I put my little dress uniform on and cleaned up the police van as much as possible," Clarke said. 

"He gave me something to hope for, and he physically and mentally changed my life. Changed my way of thinking." Cameron Lee said, adding he went "from bad kid to better kid."  

"He made a difference in my life by being respectful and treating people how they want to be treated, exercising every day, going out every day, drinking water every day, and wanting to have fun everyday," Aleyah Lee said. 

Clarke is incredibly humble

"It's not about me, it's about we," he said. He's talking about the team of  police and school safety officers that helps run the youth programs.    

"Everybody always gives me all the credit. I can't take the credit. They are the ones who do the great job that we do, and they help me out through everything," he said. 

Clarke is retiring next year, and while he plans to spend lots of time with his family, which includes six grandsons, he'll no doubt be spending time with many of the young people he's worked with, who have become his second family.

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