Omaha’s P.A.C.E unveils new turf fields after donors step up

Police Athletics for Community Engagement, or PACE, unveiled its brand new home on Thursday.
Published: Sep. 28, 2023 at 10:41 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Even before the ribbon is cut on the newly renovated ballfields at Christie Heights, the P.A.C.E. kids can’t help themselves.

“Absolutely a magical moment,” P.A.C.E. founder and interim executive director Tony Espejo said. “You see it in these kids’ faces... and opportunities they will not get anywhere else.”

But over the past year, that magic was in peril.

The youth program Espejo started in 2005 with fellow police officers, past and present, was part of a federal investigation into a former executive director and several others alleged to have conspired to defraud non-profits, including P.A.C.E.

Funding was pulled by Omaha’s mayor and other donors did the same.

And even though they were cleared of any wrongdoing, the P.A.C.E. programs, provided free to more than 4,000 kids, took the fallout.

“This year we had to scale back our baseball and flag football program, but hopefully next year we’ll be back up to full speed,” P.A.C.E. operations manager and retired police officer Jeffrey Gassaway said.

Abraham Ledesma and his brother started and played on the first P.A.C.E. teams. He coordinates their soccer program now.

“I was in their shoes a long time ago, I’m 32 years old now, I started the same spot they started,” Ledesma said after putting some young players through pre-season soccer fitness tests. “We were a lot smaller at the beginning, six teams, and now we have - this is just our academy teams - we have 20 teams.”

This year, though, things were different, and at times heartbreaking to see a program that has provided so many opportunities be faced with a budget shortfall through no fault of its own.

“We had to turn down a lot of teams because we didn’t have the hands to come and help, we didn’t have the support that we needed,” Ledesma said. “Usually in the summer we could host 130 teams, but we had to cut it down to 70 to 80 teams, so that was heartbreaking not to be able to provide the opportunity usually we are able to provide.”

P.A.C.E. board chairman Lance Jones said they are working with the city to restore public funding and are slowly closing their budgetary gap with increased help from old friends, like JBS Foods, who upped their commitment by funding the new $500,000 field, as well as help from some unexpected places.

“We’ve had checks come in from out of nowhere with letters of support saying we love what you do and we’re so happy that you guys are gonna continue this for these kids and these families,” Jones said.

“They’ve come on some tough times, there are some things that happened here, but listen, our partnership with them is strong, and we see the value in everything they do,” JBS Foods Omaha facility general manager Chase Golik said. “It’s a dual deal, it’s giving back to the community, and yet these kids get to compete and play on these surfaces, it’s awesome.”

Espejo’s passion for the program has never wavered. He said the current Omaha Police Department leadership remains supportive of the P.A.C.E. programs, and that financial partnerships will rebound in support of their efforts.

“Our kids come from all over the metro, it’s something that’s absolutely needed,” Espejo said. “If you look at times are tight right now, and athletics should be affordable, and we do it free because we want these kids to have that opportunity.”

Plans for an indoor soccer complex had to be put on hold, with earmarked funds needed to keep the programs running, this year, but they’re hoping that will still be a part of their future growth.