On Tuesday, the Philadelphia Police Athletic League hosted its annual PAL day at the Ice Rink, sponsored by the Division of Business Services, the Division of Public Safety and Coca-Cola. Kids from Philadelphia who participate in PAL events ice-skated alongside police officers and the Penn Figure Skating Club.
The event started around 16 years ago, bringing together citywide PAL groups from 20 different centers in the city.
“Kids get a chance to ice skate, have pizza and hang out in a safe environment,” Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush said.
Ted Qualli, the Executive Director of PAL, framed the event as a “cops helping kids” event, especially in light of the tension between police and communities following events such as the riots in Ferguson, Miss.
PAL is “part of the solution to some of these bigger challenges,” he said. “You’re hard pressed to find a more unique program.”
In the 1990s, Penn struggled with crime in areas around the campus. Some of this crime was committed by juveniles, so the Division of Public Safety decided to create a youth center to provide a safe environment and to keep kids off the streets.
Penn took the lead and raised money for an endowment to create the Tucker Police Athletic League of Philadelphia, which began about three years before PAL began.
Originally, the PAL center was housed at a school in West Philadelphia that closed three years ago, Rush said.
Now, PAL partners with the Elwyn Institute and has a lease for a building on 4040 Ludlow St. The center is expected to open in April or May 2016, potentially with Mayor Jim Kenney present, Rush said.
This PAL center pairs one Philadelphia police officer from the PAL unit with an officer from Penn Police Department of a different gender, Qualli said. That way the kids can have both a male and female role model.
One dedicated police officer, Officer Cassandra Parks-DeVaughn, focuses solely on PAL centers.
Parks-DeVaughn has been with PAL for the past 12 years and has helped develop programs for the girls who participate. She started programs such as competitive cheerleading, dance, art, tumbling, cooking and a Positive Attitude Ladies Pageant.
Many of these activities run twice a week, so that there will be something on every given day.
PAL has expanded beyond just sports, including events for students who do not enjoy sports. The program has adjusted to meet the interests of all kids.
“Every kid is a round peg for a round hole,” Rush said.
The program saw a 39 percent decline in juvenile arrests near the Harrowgate PAL from 2010-11, according to the Philadelphia PAL website. This led to a 6 percent overall decline in juvenile arrests citywide in the same year.
Rush, who serves as the Vice Chair of the PAL board, has tried to expand the focus of the organization over the years. “A lot of the kids who go to PAL might, if not for PAL, be going home to an empty house,” Rush said.
Instead, PAL offers the kids an opportunity for mentorship with police officers. While PAL events used to only include sports, they have expanded to include a homework club, a computer club and a cheerleading squad.
Rush explained that a few years ago, a high school ice hockey team was accidentally double-booked with the PAL ice skating event. Instead of trying to find another time to practice, the ice hockey team volunteered to teach PAL kids how to ice skate. The Penn Figure Skating Club and the Freeze Women’s Ice Hockey team, a recreational city team, volunteered at the event and helped teach kids how to skate.
One of the board members of PAL is an attorney at Cozen O’Connor law firm in Philadelphia. The firm hosts a prom night for the PAL kids and even brings in dresses for the girls to wear.
Rush hopes that Penn students will volunteer at the new PAL center. Penn students can serve as great role models and mentors for these kids. Rush would like to see Penn students helping the PAL kids study for SATs, think about their futures and think about their future career options.
The program helps build self-esteem, and kids have the chance to do things they would not normally have the opportunities to do, Parks-DeVaughn explained. For some of the participants on Tuesday, it was their first time ice-skating.
“It’s a great organization,” Rush said. “It’s been around since 1947, and it continues to grow.”
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