When 12-year-old Alyssa Parham learned last year that many police officers have to buy their own bulletproof vests, she decided to help them.
Alyssa, with assistance from her parents and a family friend, contacted the Western Pennsylvania Police Benevolent Foundation with an offer: She wants to raise money to buy bulletproof vests for every officer in the region who needs one.
The Peters Township Middle School student, who now is 13, began accepting donations from friends, members of her church and complete strangers to give to the foundation, earmarked for new ballistic protection vests. On Friday, she gave four of those vests to officers from the McDonald Borough and City of Clairton police departments as part of her campaign, Alyssa's Vests for Officers.
"I just felt like it was important to help them because they're out there risking their lives for us," said Alyssa, who will attend eighth grade this fall.
Alyssa, a fan of crime shows who wants to be a forensic pathologist when she grows up, was watching the Glenn Beck show with her dad, Bill, last spring when Mr. Beck pointed out that some officers lack essential equipment, and exhorted his viewers to help their local departments if possible. The Parham family quickly took that suggestion to heart.
Full-time officers usually are issued new bulletproof vests, but part-time officers often must buy their own, they discovered. As the newest officers on the force, with the least hours, some part-time police officers often can't afford to pay $1,000 for a basic model of bulletproof vest.
Instead, they inherit or buy used vests that often are years past their five-year expiration dates, and hope for the best.
"You just have to go with what comes," said part-time McDonald Officer Josh Withers, an Air National Guard reservist and Iraq War veteran who also works for the Canonsburg and Houston police departments and provides security for the First Niagara Plaza in Burgettstown. "You take the equipment you have and make it work."
The vests expire after five years because the fabric that holds their armor plates in place breaks down, giving their wearers less protection, according to body armor specialist Ed Hinchey of armor manufacturer Safariland. After five years, the product is no longer under warranty by the manufacturer.
Alyssa wanted better for officers like Officer Withers.
With the help of the police benevolent foundation, she helped organize fundraisers at Barley's & Hop's Beer Cafe in Bethel Park in March and at the foundation's recent motorcycle ride in May. Friends at her church, Baldwin Community United Methodist Church, donated to the cause. And Alyssa and the foundation have printed car decals and are planning a T-shirt -- a picture of Alyssa backed by police officers from the foundation, with the motto, "If you have a problem with me, see my brothers" -- to sell in time for the foundation's July 14 motorcycle ride.
The foundation and Alyssa then worked out an agreement with Safariland, under which the manufacturer sells the vests to the foundation at cost -- about $500 a vest for the most basic model that meets federal standards for law enforcement. So far, Alyssa has raised enough to buy about eight vests, including the four she gave officers Friday at M&M Uniforms in Bridgeville.
For Officer Withers and his comrades, wearing a new vest instead of the expired vest handed down from another officer in his department will be a relief, they said.
"It makes me feel more safe, less worried and concerned," about answering domestic violence calls that can quickly turn violent, Officer Withers said. "Possibly one of us could owe her our life in the future."
For Officer Brian Farkas, also of the McDonald force, replacing his 9-year-old vest with a new one will make him feel more confident in dangerous situations.
"It puts my mind at rest," Officer Farkas said. "I think it's great she's thinking of other people who are protecting her and her community."
Especially since fundraising for officer protection isn't exactly common conversation for teens on Facebook or at the mall. Alyssa's hard work and her enthusiasm for her cause are nothing short of amazing, the officers said.
"Most girls her age are thinking about hanging out with their friends, listening to music and shopping," said Clairton Officer Ben Salvio. "She's trying to help people she's never even met."
Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: 412-263-1719 or firstname.lastname@example.org.