Gainesville resident Luis Santos-Rivas took the Hall County Sheriff’s Citizens’ Academy as a curious new resident.
“At that time, I was new here in Georgia,” he said. “I decided to go to the citizen’s academy and see what it was all about and how the sheriff’s office worked.”
Seven weeks later, Rivas emerged from the twice-a-week course more informed, and with a desire to contribute.
“I learned about drug enforcement; about gangs; about all the equipment they use, for example, to help people in the lake; about the SWAT team; the CSI — all those kinds of things that the sheriff’s office does and their work for the community,” he said. “I wanted to do what I could to continue to support their efforts.”
Since, Rivas has assumed the leadership position of the Hall County Sheriff’s Citizens’ Academy Alumni Association, and has sought to grow the organization.
“Our goal is always to expand and better serve the Sheriff’s Office,” he said. “If there is something we can support, we will support it.”
The association was formed about six years ago shortly after the first citizens academy class as a way for alumni to continue to support the Sheriff’s Office, and fund future academy courses.
Capt. Chris Matthews, who heads up the court division under the Administrative Bureau of the Sheriff’s Office, is director of the Citizen’s Academy and praised Rivas’ efforts.
“We, in leadership at Hall County, encouraged Luis to try and seek out an active role model in the group, and it just turned out he eventually was president,” he said. “I think since he’s taken over, the group has leaps and bounds the past couple years. He’s been a driving force for getting word out to the community, and raising money for us that we normally could not get because of our budget.”
The nonprofit helps raise money to purchase items that don’t go on the budget approved by the Hall County Board of Commissioners, a budget that has been notably tight in recent years.
“In the past several years, they have bought us a bomb suit for my K-9 bomb unit, they bought us a red man suit for training in self-defense, they bought GPS for our civilian units, and they give an officer of the year award to someone within the sheriff’s office — that’s about $500, along with gift cards,” he said.
Matthews spoke to the benefits of the academy for the sheriff’s office.
“I think the best thing is getting the word out to the community of what we do. A lot of people think all we are is a patrol division, but the academy covers all aspects of the sheriff’s office,” he said. “Or another example: A lot of people think court service is a deputy sitting in the courtroom, but they get to witness training for active shooters in a courthouse, see how the SWAT team storms through.”
Matthews said the office used to sponsor two courses a year, but money became an issue.
“We like to have at least 30 to 35 people participate, and usually do provide a dinner every night,” he said.“That’s an encouragement to start, and that’s a big cost sometimes, and we’ve been doing it since 2005.”
To alleviate the cost burden, the group plans on funding the next citizens academy, which tentatively set for the fall, Rivas said.
“We are going to sponsor a whole citizens academy program, so we are going to cover all the expenses for the program. They have to spend money on food, equipment, transportation, so we are going to cover that with our fundraising,” he said.
These measures, Rivas said, are ways to show gratitude to the office, and to the academy, articulating in simple terms its role and significance.
“I believe that an educated community is a better place to live, and insofar as we have educated people through the citizens academy, the whole county has become a better place to live,” he said.
The group’s next fundraising event will be a yard sale at Turner, Wood and Smith insurance agency in Gainesville from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. June 22.