Tomorrow’s Promise

Officer Johnny Pun

Officer Johnny Pun

Some moments stick in your mind because you know something special is happening.

I had one of those unforgettable moments when Officer Johnny Pun and Community Service Officer Fred Glass came to see me about an idea they had.

It must have been a dozen or so years ago, but I can still remember the passion and enthusiasm in their voices when they talked about creating a school to teach kids how to fix cars rather than steal them.

Johnny and Fred had found a program funded by philanthropist Jim Moran in Broward County called the Youth Automotive Training Center. They wanted to replicate the program in Delray as a means of lowering crime in a neighborhood that was getting hit hard by auto thefts. Johnny and Fred figured that if they could teach kids to fix cars they might not steal them.

As a young reporter, I had gotten to know and befriend Johnny by riding along with him on warrant sweeps and other special operations over the years. I was always impressed by his dedication and charisma. He was a Haitian officer in a city that needed Creole speaking police and was doing great work to build trust in that growing part of our community. I quickly warmed up to Fred who was a veteran cop relocated to Delray from the tough streets of Worcester, Ma. He was ambitious and visionary. My kind of guy.

Johnny and Fred were not an obvious duo, but they became great friends and they spent hours and hours figuring out how to create a school in Delray to assist kids they were tired of arresting. They saw potential in these young people. They saw street smarts that were being applied to committing crimes. They thought with some structure, education and mentoring these same kids could become productive members of society and role models for others.

They were backed by the department’s brass, especially Deputy Chief Will McCollom, who had become one of my mentors over the years. Will believed in community policing and its transformative powers to build safe neighborhoods. He taught me and others a lot. Will thought Johnny and Fred were onto something and I agreed.

We invited the duo to a commission goal setting retreat where they could share their ideas with the commission, city staff and community leaders.

We agreed—as a city—to help fund the project. We saw it as an investment and felt that if we could reach even a few of the targeted enrollees we’d actually save money by preventing crime.

We worked closely with Johnny, Fred, Will and others to find a suitable location for the program which would become a certified charter school known originally as the Delray Youth Vocational Charter School.

Our Police Department became one of the first in Florida to open a charter school and the program delivered on its promise. Young people– on the margins of society and at risk of being lost– found themselves in a structured program where they earned a high school diploma while attaining marketable skills. Johnny and Fred were instrumental in the program’s early success, personally mentoring many of the students. In the beginning, that meant driving over to student’s homes to make sure they were up and ready to learn. Their dedication was 24/7.

Several members of the local business community stepped up as well, most notably Loren Sheffer, who owned a Volvo dealership in town. Loren saw the school as a pool of future talent—a place to train and educate technicians.

All was going well until a September morning in 2005, when we got a call that Johnny Pun was killed in a motorcycle accident in West Palm Beach. He was attending classes on the weekend to further his own education. That was Johnny, always striving. He was 37 and left behind a wife and three young children.

We were devastated. The funeral for Johnny was the largest I had ever attended. He touched so many lives in his 13 year career in Delray.

The school continued on and ultimately became known as “Tomorrow’s Promise” ably led by Marjorie Waldo, who shared Johnny and Fred’s passion for people, especially those on the margins of society.

Last week, I received an email from Marjorie saying that the school would be closing this June. The reasons: increased competition and declining enrollment.

In an email to the school’s supporters Principal Waldo said the following:

“The City of Delray Beach and the Delray Beach Police Department were instrumental in the founding of our school a dozen years ago and I wanted you all to know how grateful I am for each of your ongoing efforts to help my students.  We have graduated more than two hundred recovered drop outs over the last twelve years and I believe that the ripple effect of the support we’ve given to the hundreds of students we’ve served cannot be quantified.  Through your support of our school, and of Johnny and Fred’s dream, you have left Delray way better than it was when we started so long ago.  Thank you each so much for the part you played in our story. I personally thank each of you for allowing me to claim Tomorrow’s Promise as my passion for so long.”

Well said, Marjorie. Delray is definitely better as a result of the school’s work.

And while I mourn the loss of the school and the great work it has done in the community, we should all applaud the vision, the effort, the passion and the risk taking entrepreneurial thinking that brought the idea to life for 12 years and 200 plus students. I know Johnny would have been very proud.

We need more people like Johnny and Fred to step up and make a lasting difference. We also need to remain a city willing to take chances on visionaries. They make all the difference.