Mary Jo Pitzl | Arizona Republic
It was 7:50 p.m. on a Monday night, and Melinda Cadena was settling in for a quiet end to her day.
Those plans evaporated when the phone rang. It was a Phoenix police officer, alerting her to a woman fleeing a domestic-violence situation. She needed housing — fast. With weeks-long waiting lists at local shelters, she had nowhere to go that night.
Cadena had a quick solution. She opened her laptop, reserved a hotel room online and directed the officer to take the woman there for refuge.
The quick work prevented an escalating domestic-violence situation from getting worse, and kept a woman off the street. And it was all possible because of the work of Angels on Patrol, a nonprofit that Cadena runs as executive director.
“She just needed that one night,” Cadena said. The woman’s family was able to step in the next day and help her.
Unlike other charities that serve people in distress, Angels on Patrol does not take direct calls from the public. Instead, it fields calls from police officers, who turn to the charity when they encounter people needing emergency aid. The goal is immediate help, an instant hand up to ease a stressful situation.
Angels on Patrol is one of the 162 agencies that benefited from The Arizona Republic’s Season for Sharing campaign last year.
Since 1993, Season for Sharing has raised — and given away — more than $66 million to nonprofits statewide that help struggling families and children, support teachers and students and aid older Arizonans. Last year, the campaign awarded $2.1 million in grants to organizations that fulfill those needs.
Horrendous situation led to founding
Angels on Patrol was inspired by a grisly scene Jacqui MacConnell encountered 16 years ago as a Phoenix police sergeant. Answering a call to a Phoenix home, she was shocked to find 5-year-old twins living in cages. Their room was infested with roaches and their rigged-up cages reeked of urine and feces. Police had to cut their way into the cages to free the boys.
MacConnell called it one of the most shocking scenes she had encountered as a police officer. The parents were arrested and the children put in state custody and later adopted.
But MacConnell couldn’t shake the memory, nor did she want the image of the caged boys to be her officers’ last memory of them. They bought books and coloring materials and brought them to the foster home where the boys were staying.
These were not unusual purchases, she said. It’s common for officers to buy a winter coat, or a backpack, if they see a kid in need.
“Officers often dip into their pockets,” said MacConnell, who retired as a lieutenant in 2014. “It happens way more than you know.”
She started Angels on Patrol to boost the reach of police who find families in distress. It’s a part of a social safety net that can keep problems from worsening, perhaps preventing a call to the Department of Child Safety to a visit to a hospital emergency room.
It currently serves five police departments: Avondale, Glendale, Mesa, Phoenix and Tempe.
Last year, the organization received a $5,000 grant from Season for Sharing. Since its launch in 2011, Angels on Patrol has served 14,437 at-risk youth and families.
In 2018, the latest year for which statistics are available, Angels on Patrol fielded requests from 250 police officers that resulted in assistance to 2,272 people.
How the charity operates
Those requests were all funneled through Cadena. If the police officers are the angels, then Cadena is their field marshal, directing them where to go or what to do to help a person in crisis.
“We stabilize the crisis, then the officer can move on to the next crisis,” she said.
Much of her work is online, such as logging into hotel sites to find emergency shelter. Food-delivery services are a godsend.
In other cases, she dips into the charity’s stash of donated goods to help families equip their homes.
“This is gold to us,” she says as she unloads a boxed single burner from the back of her vehicle. The burner is ideal for families setting up for a longer-term stay in a hotel and have no other resources for cooking.
The charity’s storage locker — there is no office at the moment, just Cadena with her laptop and cellphone — is full of things like diapers, hygiene products, and the occasional bicycle. On a recent November day, she unloaded kitchen tools donated by Stardust Building Supplies.
Angels on Patrol hopes to expand beyond the five police departments it currently serves. The need is there, Cadena said, such as the time the state Department of Public Safety called looking for help for a woman and her children whom they found walking along the shoulder of Interstate 10, pushing a shopping cart with their possessions.
The woman had moved to Arizona believing she had bought a house, only to arrive and find she had been scammed. Angels on Patrol got them temporary shelter, then bought plane tickets to send the family back to their home state, where family could help with housing.
Work helps perception of police, too
Aside from trying to blunt crises, there’s another reason for Angels on Patrol, MacConnell said. She wants to change the perception of police officers as always being the heavies who arrest people. Although no longer a police officer, she remains on the organization’s board.
Officers also can help, and Angels on Patrol gives them that opportunity when an officer can provide a winter coat or diapers for a baby who was found wearing a plastic bag instead.
“It changes that whole relationship,” MacConnell said.
The charity welcomes small donations, as MacConnell said she’s awed by the combined power of small contributions spread over a large donor base.
For the coming year, Cadena said the organization is trying to fundraise for what she calls “third-shift angels.” Proceeds would pay the balance on credit cards given to a designated officer at police precincts, to cover middle-of-the-night distress calls, she said.
“Emergencies don’t happen Monday through Friday, 8 to 5,” Cadena said.
How to donate to Season for Sharing
There are four ways to donate to Season for Sharing:
Fill out the secure online form at sharing.azcentral.com.
Fill out the coupon on Page 4A of The Republic and mail to P.O. Box 29250, Phoenix, AZ 85038-9250.
Text “SHARING” to 91-999 and click on the link in the text message.
Look for the “DONATE HERE” post at the top of facebook.com/seasonforsharing.
Where the money goes
One hundred percent of donations and matching funds go to nonprofits primarily located in Maricopa and Pinal counties, but also around the state, that support teachers and students, help struggling families and aid older Arizonans. Last year, $2.1 million was raised and given back to 162 charities. All overhead and fundraising costs are paid by The Arizona Republic/azcentral.com.