Harper’s Unsung Heroes

May 2024

Written by Gale Fischer 

Keeping it Safe and Building Trust

“We don’t need police officers who see themselves as warriors. We need police officers who see themselves as guardians and parts of the community. You can’t police the community that you are not a part of.”

—-Bryan Stevenson

The foundation of schools was built on educating future generations. Early on in the days of the one-room schoolhouse, this was a rather simple concept. Children were taught how to read, write, and perform basic arithmetic under one roof with one teacher. The needs of our youth and society have changed throughout history and with this, our schools are constantly evolving. The number of adults required to meet the demands of education has multiplied. We have added counselors, administrators, kitchen staff, and bus drivers. The days of one building housing teaching and learning have been replaced with district campuses spread over miles to include elementary, middle school, and high school buildings. More recently school liaison officers have become a part of the educational process. This concept has grown for Harper Creek through the years starting with one officer sharing time at all of our buildings to our current model of three full-time liaison officers. This month’s featured Unsung Hero, Justin King, started with us this past fall as our elementary liaison officer.

Justin grew up forty miles south of Battle Creek in the eighties and nineties. He reflects on his early years. “I was born in Jackson, Michigan in 1987. I grew up in Somerset Center, Michigan near Jackson. My family consisted of three other siblings; brother Greg, a year younger than me, a sister Brittany, who is five years younger than me, and a half-brother Bill, who is seven years older than me.” Living near water provided wonderful childhood memories for Justin. “ We lived near Lake LeAnne and spent much of our time on and around the water as kids.” Swimming and playing in the water exposed Justin to many adventures but in general, being active in a variety of ways was the theme of his childhood. “I enjoyed paintball as a kid and competed in tournaments many weekends. My siblings and I loved being outside as kids, riding bikes and just playing in nature.”

Justin was raised in small-town Michigan. He talks about his experience of being educated in a tiny school district. “I went to school at Addison Public Schools near Summerset. My siblings and I attended Addison Schools from Kindergarten through twelfth grade. There were only eighty kids in my senior class. All the buildings were housed together in one area. I really enjoyed school.” 

Justin had fun with and excelled in athletics as a high school student. The small-town feel and community involvement added to his high school sports experience. Justin recalls some of his memories as an athlete. “I played soccer and baseball, beginning in my elementary school years, starting with Pop Warner football. My dad was a coach at this level which added to the enjoyment. I continued playing football through twelfth grade and also started wrestling in high school.”  Because of football and wrestling, Justin spent many hours in the weight room. Weightlifting is a passion that he enjoys, still today. Although building bulk helped him excel as a wrestler and on the gridiron, it led to a hernia injury, which forced him to the sidelines for one season of wrestling. 

Justin talks about the success he was blessed with as an athlete individually and as part of a team and the excitement it helped to generate.  “As a wrestler, I made it to the state championship my junior year with my team and then went back to the championship my senior year as a part of the team and also individually. We captured the state title as a team in my senior year. I can remember the community giving support and excitement. They packed Kellogg Arena for the state championship run.” The community was equally supportive of Justin’s football team. “Our football team won districts and regionals during my senior year. The community blessed our football team with waves of support for this as well.”

Although Justin didn’t begin working as a police officer upon graduation, he knew that he wanted to be involved with the safety of others in the community. Justin reflects on the early years of his career in public service. “After graduating from high school, I went through the fire academy and earned my paramedic license. I worked a couple of jobs in the area as a firefighter and paramedic for a few years.”

Justin enjoyed working as a first responder. It felt like it was his way to help others and make a difference in his community. He wanted to continue to work in this capacity but felt it was time to alter his career path. He discusses this shift in his life. “My mom and dad had served in the Navy. This is where they met. I had always longed to follow in their footsteps. I decided to go into the military.” This presented a bit of a dilemma for Justin. He enjoyed working as a firefighter and paramedic and had become comfortable with the paycheck. He didn’t want to give this up. He was able to find a compromise. “I joined the National Guard and was able to keep my job as a paramedic. I was with the Guard for six years and finished this in 2017 at the age of twenty–nine. In my time with the National Guard, I was able to take advantage of coursework and hands-on training that gave me some tools and knowledge that bolstered my work as a first responder.”

The training that Justin gained from his commitment to the National Guard enhanced the skills required to be a paramedic and a police officer but there were bi-products that he is grateful for as well. “The structure of being part of the National Guard was great. I wanted the experience of being deployed but unfortunately, this never happened. I was attached to a medical unit in Detroit.”

Working in the medical community as a first responder and with his time in the National Guard was a huge part of Justin’s development as a young adult. As a teenager, he wasn’t always sure of what career path he wanted to follow but he always felt a calling to help others in the community. He was ready to take this mentality in another direction. Justin talks about the next step in his path in life. “After finishing with the National Guard I decided to jump from paramedic to law enforcement. I enrolled in the police academy at KCC while continuing my work as a paramedic. I graduated from the police academy after two semesters and then began working with Emmett Township Public Safety in 2018 part-time.”

Working for Emmett Township was the perfect scenario for Justin. He explains why he likes the format of Emmett Township Public Safety. “The job with Emmett intrigued me because they integrate fire, and EMS in one unit. I enjoy responding to a variety of calls. I was more than willing to take this job, with it only being part-time.  A year after starting I was able to join as a full-time public safety employee.” 

As one might imagine, working in the field that Justin has chosen can present precarious situations but it is also full of adventure. The rewards are ongoing. Justin reflects on what it means to him to be a public safety officer. “I like to help people. We see individuals on their bad days. One of my goals is to help people when things are not going so well for them. Every day I can utilize my skills not just as a police officer but as a medic as well. If I can positively change someone’s life, then this is a win.” Dangerous calls are not necessarily something that happen every day but Justin explains why police officers must always be prepared for the routine and the unexpected. “I am certainly not in danger for every call but the potential is always there. I am always on my guard. Every call is an unknown so judgments must always be made to be safe. Many decisions are split second. Training helps with this. We have scenario training and fire training monthly.” 

Justin has developed additional skills in the last nine months as a liaison officer for Harper Creek. He talks about what brought him to our schools and what the experience has meant for him. “A grant was awarded to Harper Creek Schools a year ago to house a liaison officer in the three elementary schools. The grant is for three years but hopefully, funding will continue after this. When the posting came up it interested me and I decided to apply for this position.” Before starting in his current position Justin had limited experience in dealing with children. He saw this as a great opportunity. “My goal is to have positive connections with the youth and to let them see that police officers are there to help. It has been a learning experience for me. I have responded to calls in the past involving kids, but I still consider this my first time really working with kids. I am assigned to Wattles Park Elementary, Beadle Lake Elementary, and Sonoma Elementary but I don’t have a pre-determined schedule. There are times when I will be called to a school for a particular situation. I also have learned that there are times during each day when I need to be at certain buildings.” Justin still works the road in his squad car, picking up overtime shifts, and will go back to the road full-time during our summer break.

Housing liaison officers in schools has been a practice for many years but has become more of a need over the last few decades. Funding is always a concern when prioritizing staffing for schools as well as police departments. The three-year grant to house our three elementary buildings with a liaison officer has equipped us with safety. School shootings and daily threats have become more frequent and police presence can diminish these threats and improve responses when there is a threat but Justin sees his role for our schools going beyond safety. He summarizes his goal of working with our student body. “First and foremost I hope to establish a safe environment for our staff and students but ultimately what I can do goes well beyond this.” Police officers are seen in a negative light by some in our society. Oftentimes, negative situations among police officers are magnified by social media and the general media. Justin hopes to change this perception while working with our students. He explains this goal. “Sometimes kids are scared or uncomfortable with police officers. Every day I strive to connect with kids and increase my understanding of their nature. This can help me when I respond to calls involving children and also with the relationships I develop with kids in our elementary buildings, I want kids to feel more comfortable with police officers.” If it is Justin’s goal to improve public perception of police officers, establishing positive relationships with children is a great way to do this. 

Schools must continue to evolve to meet the needs of our students. It takes more than teachers and reading, writing, and math to help children grow and develop to become productive members of our society. Having Justin come in to work with our staff is more than an extra layer. It is a need. Enhancing the safety of our students and establishing relationships with them is something that will serve them well.

Gale Fischer has spent most of his career as a special education teacher for Wattles Park Elementary dating back to 2001. He is an avid runner and began writing the stories of local runners twelve years ago. Many of these stories have appeared in the Battle Creek Shopper and the Battle Creek Scene Magazine. Recently he started capturing the stories of Harper Creek staff members. His column, Harper Unsung Heros, features a different staff member each month. He believes that everyone has a story that can inspire others.

Harper's Unsung Hero - Ewald Heersema

Ewald was born and raised on the other side of the pond. His life experiences eventually led him to our bus garage. As a young adult he fell  in love with a Michigan girl and followed her across the Atlantic Ocean. His story that has led him to driving our students to school and back home each day in his retirement, is one I’m sure you’ll find interesting.

Harper Creek Middle School Teacher Grant Recipient

HCMS STEM teacher received the Guido A. and Elizabeth Binda Foundation, coordinated by the Calhoun Intermediate School District.

Harper's Unsung Hero - Justin King

Justin was born and raised in Small Town Michigan. He and his siblings enjoyed spending much of their free time exploring outdoors. Athletics was a big part of his high school experience and the support his teams received from the community added to the excitement. He knew early on that he wanted to spend his life helping others. His career in public safety eventually led him to Harper Creek.