ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The Allentown Police Department held its Citizens Police Academy graduation Wednesday night at City Hall, and while the department is celebrating its biggest group of participants in history, it is the unlikeliest of graduates that stole the show.
During the ceremony, Interim Allentown Police Chief Glenn Granitz asked Allentown native Brenda Fernandez to come up to the podium. She was asked to address the crowd.
"I feel excited to be a part of this. I feel I have a better understanding of what the police department does in the city and I'm just grateful that I got this opportunity. Thank you," she said.
Fernandez is proof anyone can turn their life around. She was one of a record-breaking 36 people to graduate from the academy.
"I'm just excited and ecstatic only because I know what it is to be on the other side," said Fernandez.
The other side for Brenda was spending 10 years in state prison for aggravated assault during her 20s and 30s.
"I did commit a crime years back. I did the time. I've been home for almost 11 years," she said.
Since she's been out Fernandez has not wasted a minute. She has dedicated her time to helping women getting out of prison re-integrate into society through her non-profit called 'SELF!'
"The impossible is possible and with minor setbacks we can always come back," said Fernandez.
But Brenda did not want to just come back. She wanted to be better and she thought signing up for the academy was one way she could do that. Brenda and others had questions about her eligibility.
"That application came to me when I was the captain of Center City and the question was, can she go through this, and my answer was it's not even a question. (The answer was) absolutely," said Granitz.
Over the last month, Brenda and her classmates learned what it was like to be an Allentown cop from getting behind the wheel of a police car to seeing how they investigate crimes.
Sgt. James Gress runs the class. He says he saw a big transformation in Brenda.
"She wasn't sure if she would stick it out and complete the entire course but she really did. She grew to love it and really enjoyed it," said Gress.
When Brenda received her graduation certificate, she was congratulated by Gress, Granitz and Interim Allentown Mayor Ray O'Connell.
With her new appreciation for police, Brenda says she will take what she has learned and educate folks in her community.
"The city from what I hear is broken but I think we can mend it somehow," she proudly said.
Allentown police will do a similar program for senior citizens next month. Seniors will learn how to recognize scams and fraud.
Applications are available on the city of Allentown's website. Applications are also available at Allentown City Hall.
Applications will be accepted until 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 15.