As schools opened in Matthews this fall, one absence was notable.
Matthews Police Officer Karen Greene, who served led the DARE program in three public elementary schools for nine years, retired in August. She had become a fixture in and out of the schools, leading classes inside and directing carpool traffic outside.
“Officer Greene truly went above and beyond in her service to the Elizabeth Lane School community,” said Crystal Lail, Elizabeth Lane Elementary principal. “She built relationships with families by listening to concerns and looked for a way to personally contribute to a solution.”
The national DARE program was founded in 1983 to address issues of drugs, violence, bullying, internet safety and other high-risk circumstances that students face. Crown Point, Matthews and Elizabeth Lane elementary schools are the only elementary schools in Mecklenburg County that still support the program.
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Along with her work in the schools, Greene also initiated a drop box program at the Matthews Police Department where people can safely throw away prescription drugs. She was recognized for her service at a Matthews Board of Commissioners meeting in July, where Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor also noted Greene’s passion for working with young children.
Greene, who is 55, said she retired this year to devote more time to caring for her 83-year-old father-in-law. She will be replaced by Officer Robert Holmes.
Greene is not quitting work entirely. She will stay on as a reserve office at the Matthews Police Department and has taken a job at a “little country grill.”
“I’ll be serving in another capacity,” Greene said.
Greene’s interest in the DARE program stems in part from a family experience.
Years ago, her stepson became addicted to prescription pills that he been prescribed after his wisdom teeth were removed. His choices led to years of addiction and broken relationships, although Greene said he is doing better now and they are close.
The DARE program gave Greene a forum to teach children not only to make good choices but to consider how their choices would affect those around them. She worked for the Matthews Police Department for about 14 years as a field officer before the DARE job opened up when Sgt. Larry Griffin retired.
Greene said the two-week DARE training program, which was held in Louisiana, was harder for her than basic law enforcement training. She’d never been on a plane and didn’t want to fly, so she made the two-day drive Louisiana by herself.
Moving from the streets to the classroom also was jarring, she said.
“I went from dealing with people who were on drugs to a classroom, where I had to talk on a fifth-grade level,” she said. “You wouldn’t think it’s hard, but it is.”
Greene expanded the DARE curriculum to 10 weekly lessons and included a visit from the “Dream Team,” a group of Butler High School athletes who visited DARE classes to answer the younger students’ questions about middle and high school.
“Officer Greene was a great leader of both our students and the teachers,” said Annette Clary, a math facilitator at Matthews Elementary School. “She was visible at all of our school functions and in our students’ neighborhoods.
“They knew if they needed a police officer, she was a friendly face who would help them.”
The program teaches students how to say no, how to stop bullying, how to handle difficult situations and how drugs and alcohol would affect their bodies. Greene allowed students to look through special goggles that mimicked how too much alcohol would impair their perception.
“Our fifth-graders over many years were positively impacted by the kind and thoughtful words of Officer Greene,” said Jeanne Ebert, a fifth-grade teacher at Elizabeth Lane Elementary. “She consistently taught the DARE message with a focus on peer pressure, the misuse of drugs and the need for making good decisions.”
Along with her work in the classroom and the carpool line, Greene was noted for her excellent cooking — “when her homemade ice cream and desserts showed up, teachers didn’t want to miss it,” Clary said — and for participating in school field days and other trips and talking to students during lunch and recess.
“Officer Greene is an extraordinary role model and will be deeply missed by the teachers and students,” Ebert said.
One of Greene’s most treasured gifts is a family portrait – of someone else’ family. It sits on a table in her house in Unionville along with a Bible, a devotional book and a picture of Greene’s family.
A boy in the picture is a young man Greene knew from a DARE class. She saw him in Matthews on the streets a lot when school wasn’t in session, and she said she knew he didn’t have a good home life.
“I watched him grow up in a disenfranchised family,” Greene said. “I thought, ‘we are going to break this cycle.’”
The photo was a gift from a woman who had taken the boy into custody, Greene said. She also had received a note from the boy, thanking her for helping him out of a “tough situation.”
“When you see a kid being neglected because of an adult’s poor choices,’ you want them to have a good life,” Greene said.
Throughout her nine years with the DARE program, Greene talked to thousands of elementary schoolchildren. She also gave students DARE T-shirts, hosted DARE graduation ceremonies at each of the elementary schools and in recent years added a DARE dance open to students from all three Matthews elementary schools. In the summers, she helped with a charity golf tournament that raised money for the program.
During the last week of the 2016-17 school year, Greene set up a large handwritten sign in the Elizabeth Lane Elementary School carpool line, telling families how much she’d enjoyed working with them.
“This was my last year, and I thought, ‘I’m going to get out there and see if I can strengthen this,’” Greene said. “I never anticipated the love I got from those parents.”
She remembered parents rolling down windows as they drove by, and children calling out hellos and thank yous.
“That’s why I got into it – to help people,” Greene said.
The traffic lines were just as long in the Elizabeth Lane Elementary School carpool line on the first day of school in August. This year, two Matthews’ police officers took Greene’s place directing vehicles into the school.
Marty Minchin is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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