One man’s life of service: How God led Tony Espejo from the military to the police force, to the community and back to Church
August 30, 2021
By Ron Petak
For the Catholic Voice
A passion discovered and a faith renewed.
Those words may best define the journey Tony Espejo has traveled for the better part of the last three decades.
From gang officer for the Omaha Police Department to organizer of youth sports to advocate of Catholic education, Espejo has dedicated his life to making a difference in Omaha’s Hispanic community.
It wasn’t always so for the South Omaha native. Graduating from Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School in 1989, Espejo, like so many young men at that age, lacked focus and direction.
His time as a student at Creighton University was short-lived, as were his days at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Espejo then made a life-changing decision by enlisting in the Marine Corps at age 20.
“What a rude awakening,” he said. “It’s where I grew up. I got my priorities straight. I had to in order to survive there.”
After four years in the Marines, with its demands of discipline and responsibility, Espejo was a changed man. He set his sights on becoming a police officer in his hometown.
Despite hundreds of applicants for very few jobs, Espejo liked his chances; he was a Spanish-speaking native of South Omaha. But he failed to make the cut in his first three attempts to join the force.
“I was thinking about quitting and giving up, (but) one Friday afternoon the acceptance letter was in the mail,” he said.
A REAL DIFFERENCE
That was 2000 and it didn’t take a sworn officer of the law to notice the changes to the 20th and Q streets neighborhood where he grew up. Gangs and graffiti, he said, “were all over the place.”
In 2004, Espejo got a chance to make a real difference in South Omaha when he was assigned to the Omaha Police Department’s gang unit. But a year into his assignment, he said, he realized the gang problem was entrenched in South Omaha. It was then he asked himself, “How do I really make change?”
Espejo turned to what he knew – athletics.
The former football and baseball player at Gross Catholic started a free athletics program with the Latino Peace Officers Association. He put into practice what he heard at a gang seminar: “If kids play together at 11, it’s harder for them to kill each other at 16.”
The program started with 90 players on six soccer teams in 2005. By 2019, 5,800 boys and girls ages 5 to 18 participated at no-cost in soccer, baseball, flag football and CrossFit (strength and conditioning) under the Police Athletics for Community Engagement (PACE) flag.
EXAMPLE OF GOOD
Espejo, who retired in July from the police department, said a critical factor in making the program a success was the fact he was like the youngsters he set out to help.
“I spoke the language (Spanish) and I was from the neighborhood. Deep down, these kids just need an example of what good looks like,” he said.
Among that initial group of soccer players was Abe Ledesma, who met Espejo 16 years ago as a 14-year-old while kicking a ball around at Gifford Park in east-central Omaha.
“A cop showed up (and) every time you a saw a cop you just panicked because we didn’t know any better,” Ledesma said. “He comes up to us and starts talking to us. He was friendly. He was cool. He wanted to know if we wanted to put a team together.”
Ledesma, who had never been on an organized team, took Espejo up on his offer and remained in the program until he aged out at 18.
More importantly, he took to heart the lesson of giving back to his community: Today he’s the PACE soccer coordinator.
“He knows how grateful I am for all the opportunities he has given me,” said Ledesma, now 30. “The best way for me to show him I’m grateful is to give back to the community, coaching and getting kids involved.”
Despite the successful work he was doing in community athletics with PACE, Espejo still didn’t feel fulfilled.
“I was super tired, super weak – there’s something wrong, I’m missing something. Something needs to carry me through this,” Espejo recalled. “I said to myself, ‘I need God back in my life.’”
It was Good Friday 2013. His wife, Laura, and their two children were out of town on vacation, so Espejo did what he did so many years ago at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Omaha – he went to church. It was a place he hadn’t been for 20 years.
“I went to St. Robert (Bellarmine Church in Omaha) on Good Friday and the place was packed. Everybody is standing in the back, every seat is full.
“I happened to walk by an aisle in the back and there was a little old lady sitting there and she had a spot next to her. I said, ‘Is that spot taken?’ and she goes ‘No, we’ve been waiting for you.’
“I was all in. This is where I’m supposed to be,” Espejo said.
He talked to his wife, a non-Catholic, about the pull back to the Church. At the suggestion of a friend, he spoke with Father Damien Cook, then pastor at Christ the King Parish in Omaha.
Father Cook said he sensed the Holy Spirit at work.
“Just to observe how much he came back to his Catholicism was just a beauty and a joy,” said Father Cook, now pastor at St. Philip Neri-Blessed Sacrament Parish in Omaha. “He came back to Mass on Sundays and then started doing more and more within the community.”
The Espejos, who now attend church together, soon enrolled their children at Christ the King School. They’re still attending Catholic schools to this day.
In time, Espejo’s two passions – improving the lives of the children of his South Omaha neighborhood and his commitment to Catholic education – converged at his high school alma mater.
Though he didn’t realize the value of a Catholic education while he was a student at Gross, Espejo, now 50, said that’s not the case anymore.
“If I went to public school, my life would have been absolutely, totally different,” he said. “Because I went to a Catholic school, that faith foundation was emphasized. It took many, many years for it to finally come back out for that divine intervention.”
As a member of Gross Catholic’s board the last three years, Espejo wants to build the school’s endowment to ensure families in South Omaha have an opportunity for an affordable secondary Catholic education.
“I really want to focus on helping these kids find their divine intervention,” Espejo said. “I see Gross Catholic as that center of hope in that area. It’s going to pay in the long run because it paid off for me in the long run.”