Last year, 16-year-old Alisson Martinez was standing at the base of a 6-foot wall she would have to scale without ropes, sizing up exactly how she would accomplish the task, since the petite Santa Barbara High School junior stood a good foot shorter than the wall's precipice.
She wasn't the only one facing that challenge.
The obstacle course in Paso Robles, part of a competition that Martinez and other Santa Barbara Police Department Explorers were participating in, had hundreds of other young people from around the state trying to figure that out, too.
As the other participants worked their way through the obstacle course, they reminded Martinez that scaling the wall with the help of the other competitors wasn't against the rules. She could have scaled the wall quickly with the help of one or two others.
One by one, she turned them down; she would do it herself. She told herself, "This wall is not going to beat me today."
Martinez is no stranger to obstacles, though perhaps not as conspicuous as a wall.
The teen has lived for about 10 months with her mother and her 5- and 6-year-old sisters at Transition House, a homeless shelter for families in Santa Barbara.
She has had to juggle caring for her sisters, a full course load at school and her duties with the Explorers, a demanding program with the Santa Barbara Police Department that introduces local teens to what a career in law enforcement could look like for them.
After about a half-hour of jumping, scrambling and falling from the wall, Martinez took one last run. Giving herself plenty of room, she broke out in a full sprint, hurling herself into the wall at the last minute.
And that time, she made it.
Even though exhausted and covered in bruises from the failed tries, as she pulled herself over the top, "I felt such a sense of accomplishment," she recalled.
That success got her noticed by a supervising sergeant from another district, who commended Martinez for her determination.
Martinez and Sheila Lopez are both in the Explorers program, and they sat down with Noozhawk this week to talk about the program.
On Thursday night, the Explorers will be celebrated at a holiday awards party at the Santa Barbara Teen Center, where family and friends will hear about their accomplishments this year.
The program targets local youths ages 14 to 21, and gives them a glimpse into the daily lives of police officers on the job.
They're given exposure to some of the most demanding parts of being a peace officer and even go through intense training themselves. Earlier this year, the Charger Acount profiled Explorer Yazmin Chavez, who responded to a call of a dead body along with an officer she was shadowing. They also put in many community service hours and help with the program's main fundraiser, the Menudo Festival, which will take place in February.
In their sharp blue uniforms, they're expected to live up to a code of conduct, as are police officers.
The program is watched over by Santa Barbara police officer and beat coordinator Kasi Beutel, who has five kids at home, four of whom are teens, and who is something of a stern parent to the Explorers as well as a mentor.
The Explorers routinely hand their report cards over to Beutel, and "anything lower than a C, they need to give me a written explanation."
Whether mediating between kids and their parents or helping them learn how to write a proper email or work on their résumé, Beutel said watching the Explorers grow into capable young adults is one of the best parts of her job.
She's been known to lend them suit jackets for job interviews, and Beutel said it's important for the students to have career mentors to look up to, especially the young women. Of the 20 kids in the program now, eight are female.
Lopez, who has been with the Explorers since January, has already been promoted to captain.
Born and raised in Santa Barbara, Lopez has watched family members succeed in law enforcement careers, like her cousin, Adrian Ayala, who works for the California Highway Patrol in San Luis Obispo.
Ayala made news last year after a bullet was deflected by his flashlight in a shoot-out.
"He's my main inspiration," she said.
Lopez is working full time while carrying a full course load at SBCC, adding that she's planning to transfer to San Diego State University to study criminology or criminal justice. She hopes to have a career in probation or corrections.
Beutel said the department ideally wants to hire officers who have grown up in Santa Barbara and have a local connection to its people and neighborhoods, which could make the Explorers an ideal fit if they decide to go out for the academy.
One of the department's beat coordinators is a prime example of this. Beutel mentions officer Adrian Gutierrez, who works as the beat coordinator for the city's Eastside, where he grew up and attended local schools.
But with as many as 1,000 people who show up to compete and test for one position, "we need people to be able to compete," Beutel said.
The Explorers are exposed to an impressive variety of real-life settings. Martinez and Lopez got to witness a SWAT team training exercise when they acted as hostages during the exercise, which took place two weeks ago in an empty office building in Carpinteria.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Lee Carter has hosted a mock trial for the Explorers, and they've been through CSI training, active shooting training and a host of ride-alongs with police officers on patrol.
Martinez and Lopez are even certified by the City of Santa Barbara as bilingual, which means that if they're on a ride-along with an officer and Spanish translation is needed, the young women can jump right in to help relay what is being said.
Then there are the competitions, two of which the Explorers went to last year. The competitions, which include the obstacle course Martinez was a part of, mimic the academy police recruits go through, Beutel said.
The Explorers are quizzed on how they would respond to real-life calls, such as a domestic violence situation or a report of suspicious circumstances, where those responding don't know what might be taking place.
The competitions are intense, and Martinez recalled a drill sergeant asking her to identify vehicle and penal codes. If she didn't know the answer, she'd have to drop and do 10 pushups.
"I must have done a hundred pushups by the end of the day," she said.
The pushups were nothing compared to the pepper spray Martinez was doused with at the end of the training.
After the obstacles and the training were done, "I wanted to cry because we went through so many things," she said.
Both Lopez and Martinez said they hope to pursue careers in law enforcement, and though the training is difficult, it's rewarding for them.
Beutel remembered her own hardships in academy, and how she struggled to climb the wall placed in front of the young cadets hoping to become peace officers.
The young women nodded in agreement, remembering their own walls climbed, and Beutel reminded them "nothing worthwhile ever comes easy."
To found out more about participating in the Explorer program, contact Beutel at email@example.com.