Natasha Ammons was impressed. She had been upset because someone backed into her car at her Greenwood apartment and drove off without stopping, and she had been filling out paperwork that a state Highway Patrol trooper gave her to look over.
But when she looked up from the paperwork, Ammons saw the trooper throwing a football around with her 11-year-old son and his friends. He was joking and chatting with them, sharing words of encouragement and showing kindness to the children that had just been playing in the background while Ammons dealt with the hit-and-run.
“We had just been talking about how kids are just different nowadays,” Ammons said. “I told him about how I was raising my son to keep him out of trouble, making sure he goes to school and makes something of himself. Then just a minute later, I looked up and he was tossing the ball around and playing with them for like five minutes.”
It was a small gesture, but that kindness meant a lot to Ammons. She took to Facebook with pictures of the trooper and her boy, praising trooper Whit McMahon for taking the effort to be a good example and role model for her son.
“It has to start somewhere,” Ammons said. “These kids have to start trusting officers again, and we as parents have to start trusting officers again.”
She said since then, her son and his friends have perked up whenever they see a black Dodge Challenger — the kind of car McMahon was driving. They ask her if that’s him, and when the next time he’ll visit might be.
That moment meant a lot for McMahon, too. He said the highlight of his job are these small moments where he gets to connect with children.
“I’ve been with the highway patrol four years now, so any chance I get to play around with kids or be a role model, I’ll always take it,” he said. “It’s easy to be reactionary, but when you get to be proactive and work with kids like that, I take any chance I can.”
While Ammons was busy with paperwork, McMahon said he wandered over to the kids and joked that he’s no Cam Newton, but he’d be happy to throw the ball around a bit. He said the kids were happy to play around with him, and asked him about the various tools on his belt. Some stared at his badge, reflecting bright gold in the sunlight. Jordyn, Ammons’ son, asked if he could grow up to be an officer. McMahon said the youth would make a great policeman.
As a trooper, he said he tries to have an interaction like this every day. It provides a positive influence for children, and he said he learns as much from them as they learn from him. It can be surprising, he said, how genuine children are, and how good they are at being themselves.
“They don’t have any preconceived notions of who you are,” he said. “They just want you to be with them in that moment, and be who you are. That’s so important; they can see right through a phony.”
Ammons said in a time when some people have little faith or trust in law enforcement, moments like this are essential to building that trust back up.
“That’s the reason I do this job,” McMahon said. “I’m just looking forward to our next meeting and our next time hanging out.”
Lance Cpl. Joe Hovis said McMahon’s gesture isn’t an isolated case. Troopers often carry around toy cars, stuffed animals or small toys to give to children they run into while on patrol.
Being in a wreck is a traumatic experience no matter how severe, and even being pulled over can make people nervous, Hovis said.
“We want to make sure everyone knows we’re here for your safety,” he said. “All of our guys and girls are just normal people. They’re married and have kids of their own.”
A lot of these moments go unnoticed, he said, but that’s not why they do it. They do it because it’s a joy for them to provide a bright moment in what can be a trying time for people. And as someone who works in recruitment, Hovis said being a role model for children makes his job easier down the line when those children grow up and consider becoming troopers themselves.
“It’s a great calling to be a state trooper. I love it,” he said. “You meet different people from different walks of life every single day.”