Brenda Martinez usually goes for a six-pack of Mexican beer when she enters a convenience store.
The 17-year old knows the beer is usually near the back of the store, next to the milk and juice.
As she takes her place in line behind a man buying a magazine, she can feel the stares of the other customers, likely curious to see if she will get away with it.
She places the beer on the counter and waits for the cashier's judgment. Other stores have asked for her ID; one even threatened to call police. But that hasn't stopped Martinez from trying to buy, again and again.
This time, the cashier rings up the sale without even looking at her. She hands over a $20 bill and a look of disapproval.
The cashier gives her the change, which she places on the counter, and the man with the magazine takes over the sting operation, joined by another undercover officer from the back of the store.
“I get a little upset because I don't think I look even 17,” Martinez said. “It just makes me think that if they can sell it to me, they might sell to younger kids than me.”
Martinez is a part of a group of compliance checkers coordinated by the Eagle Ridge Institute.
Middle school and high school students volunteer to go to convenience stores, restaurants and liquor stores and attempt to buy cigarettes and alcohol. The students enter with undercover officers or sheriff's deputies who wander about the store while paying close attention to the teens.
If the cashier refuses to sell, the student leaves them a note that reads, “Thank you for not selling to minors.” If they do sell, the officers write a citation.
Hiawatha Bouldin, who helps oversee the program as a certified prevention specialist, said it's not a game to trick the stores into selling. If cashiers ask the students for their ages, they are required to tell the truth.
“We are going in to make sure that they are aware of the law, their policies and procedures and we just want to make sure they are adhering to them,” said Bouldin, 58. “These students are providing a service to the community.”
Penalties and rewards
Just as the stores that do sell face felony charges and the possibility of 30 days of jail time and a $2,500 fine, the vendors that refuse to sell are rewarded by the Eagle Ridge Institute with prizes like gift cards, a George Foreman Grill and even a flat-screen TV.
Shawnna Bedell, an employee at 7-Eleven, was given a $25 gift card to Walmart during an appreciation banquet for responsible vendors and the students who volunteered.
Bedell said she knew when Karmayle Richardson walked in that she was nowhere near old enough to buy the cigarettes she asked for.
“She asked, “Can I get a pack of cigarettes” and I just looked at her and said no,” Bedell said. “I think it's a great program for people to make sure minors aren't getting sold to.”
Most of the students said seeing alcohol abuse and tobacco use in their families is what prompted them to get involved.
“There are a lot of students at my school and a lot of other schools that do drink and smoke,” Martinez said.
“When I heard about the program I thought it was a great hope knowing that there are people in my community trying to get people to stop it. A lot of students kind of question me when I tell them what I do. I tell them it's because I like being against alcohol because it's bad for you, and when you drink dangerous things can happen.”
Geronimo “Momo” Parra said he wasn't nervous when he went on his first run, but the scenario of standing in a place where you shouldn't be trying to buy something you're not legally allowed to was very peculiar.
But Momo said he can handle the stares and the awkward questions if it means stopping vendors from selling to minors.
“I'm not flattered when they sell to me,” he said. “That just means they have done it for other kids before. When they look at me and say “Hey you're underage, I can't be doing this,” then I know that there are people out there who actually care about us and who aren't trying to make a quick easy buck.”