'My policeman': Sumter police officer cares for 43 seniors in Project Checkmate

BY KAYLA ROBINS
kayla@theitem.com
Posted 5/19/19

When the ice storm took the power out, the lightbulb went on.

The Sumter Police Department had already been running its I'm OK Program with the Sumter County Sheriff's Office for more than 30 years. Officers checked on elderly residents, often …

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'My policeman': Sumter police officer cares for 43 seniors in Project Checkmate

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When the ice storm took the power out, the lightbulb went on.

The Sumter Police Department had already been running its I'm OK Program with the Sumter County Sheriff's Office for more than 30 years. Officers checked on elderly residents, often those living independently but alone, if they did not call into the station by 10 a.m.

That was the extent of the job description. Check in.

In 2014, after using that list to check on seniors when a storm froze communications between law enforcement and those who may need help, Police Chief Russell F. Roark III realized there was a continued need to support this demographic.

He wanted to create a program where an officer, the same officer, would check on seniors and help them with tasks like changing lightbulbs and smoke detector batteries. That's where it started, but it has grown from a bulb to a shining chandelier since.

"I think about 13 people signed up at the beginning. Now I have 43 seniors," Senior Cpl. Warren Davis said of Project Checkmate.

Davis does it all. He does still change lightbulbs and batteries, takes the trash to the curb. He also drives program participants to doctor appointments in his department-unique black-and-white Project Checkmate Tahoe, picks up prescriptions, holds them steady as they go grocery shopping.

He tries to contact each person once a week, visiting as needed. Some need more attention than others.

"I fell on the floor one night, and he was the first person I called. [My family, who does not live nearby, had said] don't call him, but before I could say that, he was at the back door," said Mildred Byrden, a woman in her 70s who suffers from multiple myeloma among other ailments of aging.

Byrden's inclination for independence stubbornly sticks around. She still worries about her house being too messy for guests. It isn't. She still sneaks out to the yard to rake her own leaves. She shouldn't.

Davis is stubborn, too.

"He makes sure he holds my hand when I walk, and he gets there to open that door," she said, lipstick applied and on her way to show us her Christmas decorations set up around the house in mid-May. Her son told her to take it all down, but why would she get rid of such beautiful decorations? "When I heard about the program, I thought, 'I don't think I want to do that. I'm good.' But oh boy, he became my personal police. He belongs to me 100%."

Her head peeps out between the blinds before opening the back door to her home off Alice Drive. Davis said she'd do that. First just two fingers and an eye checking out the owner of the knock, she opens the door to an eyes-wide smile. Her friend is here.

"They have to keep reminding me that he has other clients. But I always say 'my.' 'My,'" she said. "Besides his wife and his momma, I'm next in line."

Davis provides a vital service to his 43 seniors, a mixture of handyman, chauffeur and cleaner, always available to take a phone call, to listen. It depends on each person's individual needs. He knows those needs, knows each family situation, each level of care, like a doctor with a bedside manner most only dream of who memorizes the chart before heading into the room.

"He's met most of their family members, and I've watched the program grow with him," said Staff Sgt. James Sinkler, who leads the Community Services Unit under which Project Checkmate falls.

The program contributes to the overall mission of the unit, which is to promote positive relationships between law enforcement and the community, to protect and serve without focusing on the enforcement side of the job.

They're the ones who want you to know police officers also do Trunk-or-Treats for Halloween. They do back-to-school bashes for students, school mentoring and holiday service projects.

"This division is different because we're hands-on in schools and the community, dealing from kindergartners to seniors," he said.

Having empathy for a community's sometimes-forgotten sectors is one way the unit helps build goodwill. Police officers are not often seen cleaning a blind woman's bird cages out, but Davis does it with a genuine smile and helpful heart.

Teresa Lewis heard about Checkmate through being a member of the National Federation of the Blind's Sumter chapter.

"This program has been a blessing to me because I'm now all alone except for my birds, and they're wonderful birds, but they don't drive," she said. "If I don't know where to turn, he's where I turn to."

She said she used a program similar to Sumter's original I'm OK Program when she lived in Columbia but that "they don't do a lot of anything else."

"I don't really know how I made it after my parents passed until I got into the [Sumter] program because I was just here by myself," she said.

Davis said he always wanted to help people. He joined a small police department in Oklahoma as a reserve officer. During those 20 years, he responded to the Oklahoma City bombing. After moving back to his hometown to care for his aging parents, he worked as a shift officer for 15 years before the 2014 ice storm.

He said he loves this role. It makes him feel important, needed. He's a natural for it. His Tahoe can be seen every morning parked at Perfection Bakery downtown, but he's not there for a stereotypical cops-and-doughnuts reason.

He's there visiting the mother he moved back home for as she fills the shelves for the day at her store.

"A senior called me late last night. All she wanted was someone to talk to. Her husband is not doing very well. He has COPD, and he's not going to be on this earth much longer. She knows that, but she doesn't have anyone to turn to because she doesn't have children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews," he said.

He helped get an 85-year-old woman in contact with Sumter United Ministries, which built her a new roof. He still visits a 93-year-old man even though he moved into Covenant Place because "his face just lights up when I stop by for 15 minutes."

He understands the value of a friend with an open ear, a policeman armed with a hug and a helping hand.

"You know they say everyone has a guardian angel?" Mildred Byrden said as she plugged in the one atop her perennial Christmas tree, looking toward Davis. "Well, I have 10 in one. This is my angel, right here."