LAPD's Kristina Ripatti-Pearce goes the extra 3,000 miles for kids
LA Daily News
Mar 17, 2010
Every mile Kristina Ripatti-Pearce leaves behind keeps a gun out of a child's hands. Every city and town she passes gives another good kid a chance to earn a diploma.
For Ripatti-Pearce, who retired from the Los Angeles Police Department after being paralyzed by a suspect's bullet, the 3,000-mile cross-country bike relay she plans to make this summer is a journey worth pursuing — especially if it helps raise money to keep a kid out of a gang, or to put one more teenager through college.
"When you work Watts, you come across good kids who are trapped inside their homes because of gangs," Ripatti-Pearce said during a recent interview at her Redondo Beach home.
"These are the kids who are doing what they're supposed to be doing — staying in school and getting good grades — but they don't have choices. Education is the only way to get out."
But poverty, combined with guilt about leaving siblings and friends behind and parents who can't always offer encouragement, may pose what seems like insurmountable odds to a youngster, Ripatti-Pearce said.
That's why she's training to participate in Race Across America, one of the most respected and longest-running annual endurance events in the world.
With a cross-country trip on her hand-bike, she wants to raise money for an LAPD-sponsored program that raises money for scholarships. She wants to prove to those kids that anything is possible — even for a 37-year-old mother of two who is paralyzed from the chest down. Ripatti-Pearce knows better than anyone what it feels like to have the odds stacked against her.
A 10-year police veteran, she loved working the gang detail in one of the toughest parts of Los Angeles. A tall officer with a stylish blonde hair knew the kids in the neighborhood, and they got to know her.
Then on June 3, 2006, she confronted James Fenton McNeal, a career criminal who had just robbed a liquor store. He turned and fired as she chased him. One of three bullets entered her armpit, piercing her spine.
Her partner, Officer Joe Meyer shot McNeal dead, then applied emergency first aid and saved Ripatti's life.
She could have used that experience as an excuse to turn her back on the job her colleagues say she was born to do. Instead, Ripatti-Pearce's story has become one of what mental strength can accomplish more than about an officer in a wheelchair.
A year after she was shot, she rode her handbike to complete the LAPD's annual Police Memorial Run. She gave birth to her second child, a son.
And last year, she completed the grueling Boston Marathon in well under 3 hours.
But she has never forgotten those teens she got to know in Watts. She knows they rush home after school, lock their doors, and stay inside the rest of the day to study, and to do their best to ignore the gangs.
By participating in Race Across America, known as RAAM, Ripatti-Pearce's goal is to help raise awareness and funds for Operation Progress, a 10-year-old, LAPD based program that has quietly succeeded in sending 35 young people from Los Angeles' heavily gang infested neighborhoods, to college. Among the graduates, there are nurses, social workers, and teachers. She hopes others won't forget about those kids too.
"So much money goes into fighting the criminal element, to fighting gangs, paying for their rehabilitation, yet this silent majority goes overlooked," said LAPD Officer John Coughlin, who started Operation Progress after he was involved in a gang shooting.
"These kids get the grades, they go to school, but in a sense they are in jails in their homes." That's why his organization's motto is: "Good cops helping good kids get out of really bad places."
Coughlin said having his colleague and friend Ripatti undertake the long distance race can only be described as an honor.
"It's more motivating that Kristina represents us, the officers who work in these neighborhoods," Coughlin said. "She's showing the kids, 'Don't make excuses that you can't finish school, that you can't make it out of school.' "
While Coughlin hopes to expand the program, he wants the LAPD to maintain it. It's the officers who know the kids, he said. Kids like Lucio Ramirez.
The first recipient of the program 10 years ago, Ramirez had been a student at Jordan High School in Watts with a grade point average of 3.8. Not bad, for a kid who lived with his dad in camper shells in pallet yards, in trailers in people's backyards, or in garages.
He was just thankful he didn't live in the nearby projects, such as the Jordan Downs public housing project, where middle school kids get jumped, and initiated into gangs whether they want to or not.
"I remember I told a counselor about my concerns, that I had hopes of going to college, but my Dad didn't have any money," Ramirez said. "She told me don't lose hope. Two months later, she remembered me and told me to write an essay."
Ramirez won the first scholarship offered by Operation Progress, a full ride to nearby Harbor College. Now a nurse at Centinela Hospital, Ramirez is married, and the father of two children.
"I would have not made it if it wasn't for this scholarship," said Ramirez, now 28.
"(Ripatti-Pearce) being in this race is like she's raising hope. This money is going to benefit these kids in this neighborhood who think they will never get out of the system."
Ramirez may get to see Ripatti-Pearce race. He would like to be a part of the extensive support crew needed as she and three other teammates participate in the four-member relay of RAAM.
The cyclists' race begins June 12 in Oceanside, finishes about a week later in Annapolis, Md. Teams travel as much as 500 miles per day, as they ride through 14 states on a route that is 30 percent longer than the Tour de France.
Endurance cyclist Mark Burson said he asked Ripatti to join his team after hearing a speech by her and her husband, LAPD Officer Tim Pearce.
"She said she had been an athlete, and I said, 'If you're such a good athlete then join me,' " he said. "She said, 'I'll be on a hand cycle,' and I said 'Yeah, what's your point?' "
Burson, who says even hip replacement couldn't stop him from cycling, said he admires Ripatti-Pearce.
"What interests me about her is here's a woman who led a vibrant life, and in an instant, it changed," Burson said. "She decided she was not going to be a victim, despite that her life has changed. She had decided to live her life with a robust vigor more than ever before."
But there are several challenges. The team hopes that corporate or individual sponsors will help with support for a crew of about 16 people. They need two RV's and two minivans, and someone to donate gas cards among other resources.
"Once you decided that your crazy enough to do this, the first piece is the training, and for Kristina, this is going to be particularly challenging," Burson said. "She's an athlete but she's not an endurance athlete. Endurance athletes have to manage sleep and nutrition as well as their fitness level."
Along the way, the four-member relay team will raise money for Operation Progress.
"I think it's a huge challenge," Burson said. "You can't be arrogant when you do RAAM. You pedal it one stroke at a time."
The logistics of the coast to coast race keeps Pearce, Ripatti's husband, awake at night, even though they just about signed up for it on the spot.
"It sounded like a tremendous adventure, and I knew it would propel Operation Progress," Pearce said. "It sounded like quite an expedition, and our whole relationship has always been about travel and adventure."
Still, it takes a large support crew to keep the racers goings. And it's a test of endurance, not speed, Pearce said.
"We still don't understand how her body is going to hold up," said Pearce, who will be part of the support team.
Ripatti admits she has fears. There are steep inclines as the team reaches Western states with higher elevations. And because of her spinal injury, she does not perspire, a concern in the summer months as she is crossing the desert.
"I'm worried about the weather," she said. "I'm worried about my arms."
But Ripatti-Pearce said she can only do what she has always done, before and then not long after the shooting. She trains. She gets into the gym.
But in the end, it's not about her. It's about Operation Progress and those kids who want to get out of the projects but don't know how.
"I know we can't solve the gang problem," Ripatti-Pearce said. "But I can do my part. If we push ourselves, we're setting an example. We're saying to these kids, when you're faced with challenges you can get through it."
For information about supporting Kristina Ripatti during the Race Across America, call Mark Burson at 805-390-1767. To donate to Operation Progress, see OperationProgress.org.