On the nights that his father didn’t return home after work, Mike would sit up waiting for him in the living room.
His dad was a drinker, and Mike always worried that something bad would happen to him. As soon as he saw the glare of the headlights in the driveway, Mike would scurry off to bed and hide under the covers, crying.
He was relieved his dad was safe, but scared that a barrage of drunken verbal abuse would be aimed at him, his older brother or his mom.
Mike worried that others would find out about his alcoholic father. He would often run home from school, ahead of the other kids, so they wouldn’t know he lived in the house with the man who was loud, embarrassing and obnoxious.
Now 44, Mike Novakowski, a sergeant with the Abbotsford Police Department, devotes much of his time talking to young people about making good choices and trying to steer them away from a life of crime. Many of them are living through a dysfunctional upbringing similar to his own, and he wants them to know he understands.
Novakowski shares his story with local students through the series of “Operation” programs – Tarnish, Impact, Veritas, Lodestar, Reclamation and Acorn. He created and developed the initiatives, starting in 2009 during a period when gang activity was rampant in Abbotsford.
This work has earned him the 2010 Abbotsford Policing Award for Outstanding Community Service.
The series includes posters and videos, but the main focus is on school presentations.
Novakowski has spoken in front of thousands of kids, telling the older ones about the dangerous lures of gangs, including the false feeling of family they can offer to youth seeking a sense of belonging.
He talks to the younger ones about being kind to others, using the opportunity to share another piece of his history.
He was bullied as a child because of a condition called pectus carinatum – a deformity of the chest that can result in pressure on the heart and lungs and which made him look a bit different. He required surgery – involving 200 stitches – at the age of 12 to remove some of the bone and ease the pressure on his organs.
Novakowski, a self-proclaimed introvert, said it wasn’t an easy decision for him to speak so openly about his upbringing.
“I struggled with exposing my private life in such a manner, but I’m really, really glad I did because the kids can relate.”
Perhaps the most important message he wants to deliver is that life is about choices and responsibility.
He recalls making a conscious decision, as a young boy, that he would not be like his father, who died in 2004. But Novakowski can’t pinpoint exactly why he stayed out of trouble when others in his situation might have gone a different direction.
He said his strong, loving mother kept him level-headed, and he gravitated towards academics, earning straight A’s and many awards during his school years in Delta.
Among his career considerations were a veterinarian or a movie director/producer. He often shot films on his Straight-8 camera.
Police officer was also high on the list. He liked the idea of “being part of something positive and helping people.”
Novakowski became a reserve officer at the age of 19 to determine whether it was something he wanted to do permanently.
A stint as a border officer came next before he joined the police academy in 1989 and was then signed on with the Matsqui Police, which became the Abbotsford Police Department when the two cities amalgamated.
Novakowski, who is married with three kids, spent 10 years on the streets – including patrol, the emergency response team and the bike squad – and loved the adrenalin rush he got from not knowing what was coming next.
“No two calls are the same. There are a lot of personalities involved … (I like) the challenge of going into situations not knowing all the information.”
His love of academics has continued through the years. In 2005, Novakowski earned his master of arts in leadership and training. This year, he completed his master of law, but has no desire to enter the courthouse as a career.
“When you become a lawyer, the courthouse is your office … Here, there’s an opportunity to change things before they get to the courthouse.”
He is also a writer, regularly contributing to some industry publications, and an instructor, having taught at both University of the Fraser Valley and the Justice Institute of B.C.
His five-year role as the sergeant in charge of community policing ends later this year, and he’s not sure what he will do next with the Abbotsford Police, although he’s thinking about returning to patrol.
Whatever his choice, his involvement with young people will continue because he is emphatic that they have the power to take control of their lives.
“You can always finish strong. I can’t change my upbringing, but I can change where I’m headed.”