Twins outfielder Max Kepler stepped up to the plate with his team down two runs to Cleveland, prompting the playoff-hungry crowd of nearly 30,000 to lean forward in their seats. But Elevoun Wren had other priorities on his mind.
Waiting for him back in the buffet line at the swanky Champions Club at Target Field was a soft-serve machine and all the topping combinations a 14-year-old’s mind could dream up. The home team’s playoff push could wait.
The recent afternoon found Wren and several others hanging out at the ballpark with police officers from Minneapolis and St. Paul. It was the latest outing of Bike Cops for Kids, an exercise in community building started by a pair of Minneapolis school liaison officers looking to share their love of bike riding.
The idea for the program came about in 2009 as a way for the officers, Mike Kirchen and Mark Klukow, to keep in touch with kids from school who found trouble during the summer months. Sticking with what they knew best, the two avid bikers started riding around the city passing out free children’s helmets. Since 2009, the program has distributed 53 new bikes, 900 bike helmets and 3,000 Minneapolis Police Department water bottles.
Later, the program expanded to taking kids to Twins games, sitting in the plush Champions Club seats behind home plate.
The $300 tickets are donated about a dozen times every season by Kirchen’s uncle, attorney Michael Ciresi, and Dean Phillips, CEO of Phillips and Sons distillery. The two are longtime benefactors of the program, Kirchen says.
In the past, they only invited A and B honor roll kids. More recently, Kirchen started working with teenagers released from the state’s juvenile prison in Red Wing. Many of the kids have never set foot inside a major league ballpark before, much less met a Twins player, who chatted with the kids before the game.
“I grew up a Twins fan, a baseball fan, but even [for me] meeting a player was never going to happen,” said officer Dave O’Connor, who took over for Klukow recently after the latter made sergeant and was reassigned to another unit.
Sitting behind him as he spoke, St. Paul police officer Jason Bain nodded in agreement. Last May, Bain started a similar program across the river, also called Bike Cops for Kids.
Riding a bike and wearing a “softer” uniform of his department blues and shorts is making him more approachable, Bain said. In some ways, he says, it also removes the stigma of being seen talking with police in certain areas.
“Nobody in a neighborhood wants to see a cop car pull up in front of their house,” he says. The St. Paul version only has three officers on the day shift, but Bain hopes to grow the program by partnering with philanthropic groups.
Kirchen says that the program has given kids like Wren the chance to connect with officers under pleasant circumstances. The two shared a laugh as Wren showed a cellphone video of himself dancing after hitting the game-winning shot in a pickup basketball game.
Later, sitting with a melting sundae in a to-go cup, Wren admitted that seeing his first baseball game had been a “good experience.”
“It’s good to see another sport,” said the incoming North High School freshman.
Wren said he had gotten to know “Officer Mike,” as he’s known to kids and colleagues alike, after running into him in parks around north Minneapolis, where Kirchen and O’Connor would hand out ice cream bars.
And while he said that he remained generally leery of police, Wren said he appreciated cops like Kirchen, who took the time to speak to him.
The program has grown in size and accolades over the years, but at a tense time for both police and civilians, its mission seems more vital than ever, its creators say.
“The guys in the squad cars are just so busy trying to keep up with 911 calls,” said Kirchen. “They don’t have time to just get out and throw a football around.”
He said he’s convinced reaching out to kids at an impressionable age should also help curb potential problems down the line.
Bike Cops’ work is funded by Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi law firm’s private foundation and through partnerships with Kowalski’s, Target and Sebastian Joe’s. Nearly eight years after he started the program, the wisecracking Kirchen has shown no signs of slowing down. He still greets everyone with the enthusiasm of an uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. He plays one-on-one with children. He collars anyone within arm’s reach for selfies.
The unit’s Facebook page lights up every other day with photos of the pair riding around the city, handing out children’s bike helmets and other trinkets. In one recent post, Kirchen posed for a photo with a smiling boy in the parking lot of a Loring Park gas station where the unit was giving away Frisbees adorned with the department’s insignia.
Another post features the unit’s retrofitted ice cream truck, which features a regulation-sized basketball hoop and is stocked with bike helmets, water bottles and spare bike parts.
“We pull into a park and intersection, set up shop and the kids come running,” Kirchen said.