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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
“I was at the end of my rope, thinking suicide was the only solution,” said Detective Matt Thornton. After nine years with the Zion (Illinois) Police Department (ZPD), where he was assigned to sex and murder cases, the violence and heartbreak he dealt with on the streets had brought him to the brink of despair.
But one winter night in 2013, in a remote corner of an empty lot outside a local convenience store, his life turned around. A woman tapped on his squad car’s window. When he rolled it down, she silently handed him a red plastic cross, then walked away.“I felt like I’d gotten a message from God,” he says. “It was a miracle. And it saved my life.”
In response, Det. Thornton committed himself to helping the high-risk kids of Zion’s gritty neighborhoods turn their lives around too. He started by asking a few to play basketball and pray with him at Wesley Free Methodist Church on Friday nights. To Thornton’s surprise, these tough street kids were not only eager to come but also responsive to his conversations about respect, love, and forgiveness.
This was the start of a program that has changed hundreds of young lives. Called My Father’s Business (MFB) after Jesus’s statement that he devoted himself to “my Father’s business,” the name also reflects the mentoring roles that Det. Thornton and MFB have played in the lives of these kids, most of whom lack father figures.
Since it began in 2015, MFB has grown exponentially. Up until the spring of 2020, when COVID regulations required that the number of participants be reduced, more than 125 kids had been coming to play basketball, eat, hang out, and pray every Friday night. They also went on field trips to concerts, ball games, and other events and enjoyed activities such as swimming, sledding, and skating.
And though prayer and Christian teachings are at the center of the program, kids of many faiths are welcome and active participants.
Photo Courtesy of My Father’s Business
“My lesson plans are about kindness, respect, basic morals. I talk about religion in a practical sense, about how to live a good life,” says Det. Thornton. “But the main thing that attracts them is having a safe place to get off the streets, where they have the support of caring adults who they trust.”
Moreover, this support doesn’t stop on Friday nights. “They can call me and anyone else on our team any time, for help or just to talk. We’ve helped our kids get access to social and financial services, contacts at local colleges, and people who help get them jobs, among other things.”
MFB is supported by a team of 20 adults including teachers, social workers, and auxiliary police. They also have a therapist on call, who meets with the group when a traumatic event occurs.
A wide variety of others come to lend a hand or talk to the kids too. Among them have been members of the Chicago Bears football team. The team’s wide receivers coach and an offensive lineman have given large donations to MFB, as well as gift cards and other items to the kids.
“I’ve also had people who’ve come from the kids’ back ground, former gang members, as well as teachers, a judge, military recruiters, and other professionals,” says Det. Thornton. “Our mayor, Billy McKinney, who was in the NBA [National Basketball Association], grew up here and loves our kids. He brings gifts and talks with them from time to time.”
Photo Courtesy of My Father’s Business
The ZPD’s officers have also been supportive. “And our chief is one hundred percent behind me,” says Det. Thornton.. “We’ve worked together at different events, and he runs the Community of Character Initiative too. He helps get city leaders involved, to stage marches and other events to support MFB.”
Asked what effect MFB has had on the department’s community relations, Det. Thornton says “Young people especially don’t see us as the enemy any more. We’ve been able to break down walls between police and young people who were pretty much raised to hate us. Our kids vouch for us on the street. And they wear MFB’s gold logo proudly everywhere they go,” he adds.
As for the impact on the kids themselves, Det. Thornton says “We’ve seen remarkable changes in some whom you would have expected to become crime statistics. Many are living productive lives,” he says. “Quite a few have gone to college, into the military and law enforcement. And they’re all part of our ‘family’ now, looking out for each other.”
Det. Thornton used his own funds to start the program and continues to support it financially. But he has also raised funds from local businesses, golf outings, and other events as well as social media. “People are kind hearted and see what we are doing is authentic. So they want to help,” he says.
He adds that the program can be easily replicated by law enforcement agencies, government entities, faith groups, or private citizens and adapted to their resources and community needs.
To get the word out, Det. Thornton speaks at churches, colleges, and civic groups around the country, bringing some of the kids with him. “These are my crew, my soldiers. They talk about how much the program has meant to them.”
Asked if he ever tracked down the woman who gave him the cross that fateful night, Det. Thornton says, “She was an employee at the store. I found her and let her know what she did for me—and for so many others by inspiring MFB. We are great friends now and I take her to speaking events with me. She had never done anything like this before, so I asked why she did it that night. She said ‘I really don’t know. God just told me to go out and give the cross to the person in the police car.’”
Faye C. Elkins
Sr. Technical Writer
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