Opinion: Never underestimate your ability to impact the lives of others

When I was 16, I had saved enough money to buy my first car. One day as I waited to pick up a friend from work, I heard a tap on my window. I looked to my left and saw the barrel of a gun. The man opened my door and tried to force me into the passenger seat, but in the struggle that followed I broke free and escaped.

I was fortunate that the violence of that event didn’t shape me. Instead it was the police officers who rushed to the scene who forever altered the trajectory of my life. They showed me the power of kindness, and they made a terrified girl feel safe. Above all, they showed me the power law enforcement has to positively impact the lives of those we encounter and set me down the path to where I am today.

On Jan. 2 I was sworn in as San Mateo County Sheriff. I am the first woman to hold the office, and I and Alameda County’s Yesenia Sanchez are the first two Latina sheriffs in California history.

A few years after the attempted carjacking, I joined the Sheriff’s Office and started my career working in the jail. There were many individuals I encountered struggling with mental health issues, substance use disorders and unprocessed trauma, but one that will stay with me forever was Elizabeth. She had been trafficked and addicted to drugs since age 15. She had a traumatic past, but I worked to plant seeds of hope in her that she could change her future — and she did.

Today, Elizabeth runs a non-profit that works with law enforcement to raise awareness about human trafficking. She’s obtained her Master’s and regained custody of her son. Last week she shared how I helped change her life, but she didn’t realize she’s also shaped mine. She showed me that I too possessed the power to alter someone’s life through caring and compassion, and she planted a seed in me to never give up on people.

You’ve probably heard the term community policing, but you may not know what it means to me or what it looks like. One of the most rewarding assignments I’ve had was as a school resource officer in a community with a large immigrant population. I had noticed that many mothers were having trouble connecting with their kids who were more quickly assimilating at school. So I created a mothers’ group, and we learned so much about each other.

One day, when I was pregnant with my daughter, one called me and said her son didn’t want to go to school. I came to her home, and when I got there, her house was decorated with balloons, flowers and more. These incredible women had tricked me and spent what little money they had to throw me a baby shower. They had a potluck and cake and bought me diapers, bottles and onesies. It was deeply meaningful given how much these families struggle to provide for their own children, and I realized I’d been embraced by this community. It was an unforgettable moment that showed me the reciprocal nature of community policing, and that once again demonstrated the power law enforcement has to positively influence the communities we serve.

When I became Sheriff this month, I realized I never would have embarked down this improbable path if that 16-year-old girl hadn’t been met with such incredible kindness and caring by those officers all those years ago. I wouldn’t have been inspired and motivated to enter this profession, to make a difference, and to one day break all sorts of barriers to become San Mateo County Sheriff. They shaped who I am today, and they shaped who I will be as sheriff for years to come.

Never underestimate your ability to make lasting change in the lives of others. Just like those officers, Elizabeth, and the group of mothers, each of us has an extraordinary capacity to inspire and motivate others. We just have to take the time to see the good in one another.

Christina Corpus is the 26th sheriff of San Mateo County.

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