Youths DARE to Pay It Forward in Tracy

The City of Tracy won the Ruth Vreeland Award for Engaging Youth in City Government category of the 2017 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more about the award program, visit

The City of Tracy (pop. 90,890) is a bedroom community located in San Joaquin County approximately 60 miles south of Sacramento. Its residents typically commute to other cities to work.

During the past several years, as in most communities, staff in law enforcement and schools have seen an increase in the use of social media among young people, who can now learn quickly about new trends and fads. The downside of this activity is an increase in drug abuse, bullying and poor decisions. 

The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) officer in Tracy took a proactive approach in addressing these issues and worked with high school students to create the DARE to Pay It Forward program in 2012. Through the program, high school students serve as mentors for younger students who are being bullied. Since its inception, over 35 high school students have served as mentors and have assisted more than 1,500 students. 

Building on the Original DARE Program

DARE is a 10-week program taught to local fifth-grade students. The curriculum covers decisionmaking skills, resisting peer pressure, dealing with bullying, building self-esteem, the consequences of drug abuse and the benefits of community service. Established in 1983, the DARE program is currently conducted in over 40 countries. 

The DARE program is a collaboration among the police, schools and parents. The police officers provide the curriculum. Every DARE officer must attend a two-week training to become a certified instructor and must also attend annual update training. 

The school districts provide the setting for the officer. The classroom teachers give the officer 50 minutes of class time each week, and parents play a role in offering support to their children for participating in the program. The parents attend a celebration at the conclusion of the DARE program, which acknowledges the accomplishments of the participating students with various awards for community service, being a role model, having outstanding writing skills and demonstrating leadership skills.

How the Programs Dovetail

The DARE to Pay It Forward program conducts monthly meetings at the Tracy Police Department. The mentors also meet after school with the younger students. These meetings are sometimes held at the schools, local parks or eating establishments. The locations are intended to help the younger students feel comfortable when meeting with their mentor. 

The DARE to Pay It Forward mentors speak at the DARE concluding celebrations and share how the things they learned in fifth grade helped them in high school and later in life.

Lauren Widner is a former high school student and member of DARE to Pay It Forward. She says, “I was a part of the DARE to Pay It Forward program for four years. I enjoyed helping others and mentoring the kids involved in the DARE program made me happy. I spoke at the DARE graduations, and each time was special to me because I knew my message would resonate with the students for years to come.”

The DARE to Pay It Forward program aims to provide children with knowledge and skills to make informed decisions and to develop safe and healthy lifestyles. Topics covered include tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, volatile substances, bullying, antisocial behavior and different types of peer pressure. The children examine cultural attitudes and beliefs about alcohol and tobacco. The sessions are interactive and offer a range of learning opportunities through individual activities, teamwork, discussions, storyboards and appropriate role playing. High school graduate Simran Grewal says, “I enjoyed talking to the younger students about staying away from the negative temptations in life. I hope I impacted them in a positive way.” 

The students who participate in DARE to Pay It Forward also organize and assist with several community service projects. This provides another opportunity to bond with the younger children. These projects include donating food and clothing to the needy, writing letters of support to military personnel, visiting patients at a memory facility, cleaning local parks and inviting local police officers to lunch. Such projects give the students a better understanding of Tracy’s broader community. It also allows them to help others while building their self-esteem. DARE Officer Steve Abercrombie says, “It’s important for the students to realize that they need to play an active role in their community. Part of being a good citizen is caring for others.”

Every year, participants and staff celebrate the DARE to Pay It Forward program. Students receive awards for participating in community service and for being role models and leaders, which reinforces their accomplishments in the program. The students who participate in and help with the greatest number of community service projects receive a pin and recognition at a city council meeting. Teachers also honor participating students for being good role models for their fellow classmates. In addition, the group selects one student from their class — who continually demonstrates the characteristics of respect, responsibility, caring, trustworthiness, citizenship and fairness — to receive the DARE leadership award. One student from each class is selected as the top essay winner. The students then share their report on the leadership award with the audience. 

Funding for the Program

The DARE to Pay It Forward program receives financial support from the Tracy DARE nonprofit organization. The DARE officer works directly with the Tracy DARE Board of Directors in providing community service projects. These projects include building libraries in Africa, assisting with Brighter Christmas of Tracy, visiting local senior centers, donating toys to the patients in local children’s hospitals and more. The mentors are also encouraged to create new community service projects.

Making a Difference

The DARE program has played a key role in fostering a positive relationship among local children, their parents and law enforcement personnel. The interaction between the youths, parents, families and law enforcement helps to create an awareness that police officers are not “the enemy.” Through the program, members of the community appreciate that each and every day, the officers put their own lives on the line to protect and serve. As a result, the students who participate in DARE and DARE to Pay It Forward are not only more supportive of the system, but they are also more likely to continue to obey the laws, respect their community and care for others, thus building a stronger, safer community.

Contact: Steve Abercrombie, police officer, Tracy Police Department; phone: (209) 831-6647; email:

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the City of Tracy and the League of California Cities.