When Marcos Rivera walks onto campus, he's greeted with hugs, waves and smiles from students. He eats lunch with them. He spends one-on-one time with a few, tackling issues such as peer pressure and setting goals.
The California Highway Patrol officer and three of his colleagues are on missions to mentor at-risk children, counseling them to make the right choices.
Rivera, 47, visits schools in Denair, Empire and Salida in between writing tickets and responding to traffic crashes while on duty, but also on his own time.
"Junior high is just brutal," he said. "The peer pressure, boys hide behind their personalities. It doesn't matter which school I go to, it's the same thing. We'll never have a shortage of kids who are troubled."
Rivera said his goal is to deter gang activity, drug use, peer pressure and other behavior that leads to bad choices. He'll talk to any child. "I try to make each kid feel special," he said. But he focuses his efforts on boys, especially those without dads.
Boys like David Siebels, an eighth-grader at Empire Elementary School. David was acting out and getting into fights at school. At one point, he served a string of school suspensions and time in juvenile hall. David, 14, said Rivera has gotten him back on track.
"(Rivera) talked about something very personal, about not having a dad, and how that can lead to certain issues like drugs. I related to him," said David, who was considering joining a gang. "He stopped me from making decisions I would have made if I didn't meet with him."
During a recession, when most agencies are tightening their belts and cutting community programs, it's refreshing to see that some groups have made mentoring and volunteering a priority, said Kathy Machado, assistant principal at Empire Elementary.
"He's a wonderful role model. He engages kids about respect and courtesy and finds the good in them," she said about Rivera. The loss of Empire Elementary's school resource officer because of budget cuts left a void on campus, she added.
"I'm free and that's a real help" for schools, Rivera said. "I don't have to worry about curriculum, I don't have to worry about state test scores."
Rivera's supervisor, Capt. Lenley Duncan, said he prioritizes community programs.
"It takes a village to raise a child and we're part of that village," he said.
"If we left some of these issues unaddressed, who knows what would happen? It's an investment in our future," Duncan said.
In addition to providing students a positive adult role model, Rivera spends time on setting and achieving goals.
When Rivera learned that David wanted to play football in college, the officer told David that getting into trouble hurts those chances.
"I don't have parents telling me 'I can do it if I try hard enough,' " David said. "Now I'm focusing on a goal. I'm saving money so I can play football in high school. It costs a lot."
The key isn't asking students what they want to do in life, but how they plan to get there.
"I want them to realize their dreams sooner, that they'll eventually overcome peer pressure," Rivera said. "I want them to overcome obstacles sooner in life to empower them, for a sense of importance."