As a School Resource Officer with the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, Tori Mason has helped students navigate through many challenges. But it was one instance in particular last Christmas that really stood out in her mind.
A child she knew well at the elementary school she worked at was consistently showing up to the nurse’s room with a stomachache. “It was a family I’d worked with throughout my entire career,” Tori says. “His mother is a single mom like me, so I felt a connection to her.” Tori took an interest and tried to find out why the boy was having the health concern. Turns out it had nothing to do with stomach pain. He was devastated that the family’s power had been turned off and he was scared.
“He confided in me that they didn’t have electricity and asked me not to tell anyone and my heart just sank,” she says. The one main reason the little boy wanted the electricity turned back on wasn’t for food or warmth or even to play video games. His number one reason was so that he could see the lights back on his Christmas tree.
Tori called the electric company and found out that the overdue bill was about $2,000, far more than she could afford to spend. “I thought, ‘how in the world am I going to come up with this money?’” she says.
So, she launched a private, discreet fundraising campaign. She worked with faculty, her family and friends, colleagues at the department, and she even pitched in herself. “Our entire community came together to get this family’s lights back on. And we did it. When the mom found out, she was in tears and I asked her to please not to be mad at her son. We pulled him in as school was releasing and I asked him, ‘what was one thing you wanted more than anything?’ He said he just wanted to see the lights on the Christmas tree again. When he heard that he would that night, he started crying. I started crying. It was just the most amazing feeling. I think I would have sold a kidney to get his lights back on,” she jokes.
The story has an even happier ending in that the mom was able to get back on her feet and land a job in the school’s cafeteria soon afterward.
Tori wasn’t always from Niceville (a quite appropriate name for the town with extremely nice people). Born in Naples, she graduated high school in Fort Myers and moved north to Pensacola for college. She earned a bachelor’s degree in social work with a minor in child welfare from the University of West Florida, and immediately after graduation went to work as an investigator for the Department of Children and Families. After about three years there, she realized she wanted to give more. “I realized I was on the wrong side of things for me personally to feel like I was making a difference. I loved being there first for the kids, but I was never able to see closure at the end of the process. I knew in my heart I had a calling for law enforcement to gain the ability to make a bigger impact throughout the entirety of a child’s case experience.”
She did a few law enforcement ride-alongs, and says she was in awe working with deputies and learning how they could help families through their entire process in the system.
In 2016 she was sponsored to attend the academy at the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office. There, she worked in patrol and special street crimes for two years before getting the opportunity to move back to where she started in Okaloosa County. “That’s where my love for law enforcement started and I really wanted to come back,” she says.
She became an SRO almost right away and started at Plew Elementary School. “I absolutely love my job. It allows me to provide a positive law enforcement interaction with kids, which in many cases is the complete opposite if we are responding to investigate abuse, a domestic disturbance, or even a traffic violation. Working as an SRO helps provides kids with a good first relationship with law enforcement and lets them know we are there to help them,” she says.
She recently transferred to Niceville High School and is making the transition from elementary school children to teenagers. “It’s like day and night, but awesome,” she says. “I enjoy playing a positive supportive role at a time when they really need it and offering an extra push of confidence if they don’t get it at home. I can be that person who they can come in and talk to about anything. If it can make a difference in how they perceive law enforcement and know that I’ll take the time to see them as people, see past color and gender, it’s worth it. I wear this uniform but when I take it off, I’m a person just like they are, and I try to get them to know that’s how I see them.”
She is also an instructor for her agency’s Teen Driver Challenge Program, teaching teens to drive safely and defensively and she recently became a Big Sister with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Florida program.
As if there isn’t enough on her plate, Tori is also a member of the Sheriff’s Office Dive Team. She takes the lead in keeping track of sexual predators in the area and making sure they’re abiding by state mandates, and she recently launched a fellowship of Christian Peace Officers. “I wanted to do something for my colleagues who are suffering from mental challenges or post-traumatic stress. Suicide rates among officers are at an all-time high, and I wanted to give people a place to feel safe, be able to come together for God, whether you are a believer or not, and help first responders who are struggling. It’s hard for a lot of us to go speak to someone who isn’t in law enforcement so I wanted to make a place where everyone felt safe and could talk if they are having a rough time. God kept telling me to ask about it, so I did. There are three of us who started it and we take turns leading the group. It’s been really great.”
Her lifetime commitment to serving others has earned Tori recognition of being named a CGI Celebrating Strength Hero. She is one of four people chosen statewide who have won a $1,000 prize from the window and door manufacturer in its contest to recognize everyday heroes going above and beyond to help others. If chosen as the overall winner after a public voting campaign, she could win an additional $5,000.
“Tori is a positive force to be reckoned with and her incredible legacy of service is noteworthy,” said Bob Keller, President of the Southeast Business Unit for PGT Innovations, CGI’s parent company. “Her compassion for people and students is unending and is certainly worthy of recognition.”
Her boyfriend and fellow officer nominated Tori for the CGI Celebrating Strength award. Here is some of what he said about her:
“Over the past year, despite COVID-19, she has continued to work, day in and day out for her community. Tori has created not only a safe learning environment for the students but has developed an even stronger family bond with the faculty and staff. Tori has volunteered to attend the Florida Youth Ranch Camp Sorenson this year and utilized money she had fundraised in her school safety account to purchase a new canoe for the camp. In addition to all of the above, Tori is a single mother to a seven-year-old daughter and actively pursuing her Master’s Degree in Public Administration. Serving her community is what Tori lives for.”
Not surprisingly, Tori is extremely humble about her nomination.
“I think I had such a good childhood and had so many supportive individuals in my life, especially my parents, that I want to pay it forward. Children are vulnerable and unless you have someone who’s there to protect them, they are like little ducks out there on their own and I don’t want any of them to feel like they don’t have a family or a home.”
To find out more about all of the winners and to cast your vote, click here.