By LESLIE COLLINS
May 15, 2013
Thirteen years ago, the building at 1801 White Ave. was listed on the city’s dangerous buildings list. Its roof was caving in, the floors were buckling. Estimated repairs totaled $200,000. The last thing the neighborhood needed was another blighted building or vacant lot.
Police officers and citizens saw potential in this dilapidated building, however, and identified it as a possible Police Athletic League (PAL) Center for youth. Through donations and a $277,000 grant from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and Hallmark, the necessary repairs were made and the building opened a year later in 2001. It became Kansas City’s third PAL Center and serves youth ages eight to 18 year-round. Activities include arts and crafts, sewing, field trips, cheerleading, soccer, boxing, basketball, and now football, among other activities. Police officers serve as coaches and mentors, positively influencing inner city youth.
On May 1, the center held a grand re-opening ceremony to showcase facility upgrades and the new natural turf football field complete with an $18,000 score board, stadium lighting and goal posts. The Greater Kansas City Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) helped PAL secure a $100,000 grant from the NFL Grassroots Program to fund the new turf and PAL received more than $500,000 in matching funds from community donors, area businesses and PIAC (Public Improvements Advisory Committee). Eventually, PAL would like to build a concession stand to serve refreshments during games and to further fund the center’s activities.
“It means an awful lot to us,” Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) Officer Q. Johnson said of the new field during a previous interview with Northeast News. “We’re able to offer something to the kids that they’ve been asking to have for years now. That is a win-win in and of itself.”
Within 14 months, the PAL Center raised more than $750,000 from area businesses and donors for needed facility upgrades, said PAL Board President Christine Lentz. More than 50 area businesses contributed to PAL in 2012 and a number of businesses provided in-kind donations. Without their help, the building most likely would have been boarded up a year ago, she said.
“As I walked through this building (in 2011), I could not believe the condition of this building,” Lentz said. “Bullet holes in the windows, water filtering in through the bullet holes and literally rotting the ceiling walls in this gym, bathrooms that would require you to duck under the partitions. Driving through this parking lot was like an obstacle course; you had to dodge large potholes to avoid being swallowed up.”
Thanks to the donations, repairs and upgrades were made possible and included a partial roof, new landscaping, additional security lighting, security cameras, mold remediation, an updated heating and cooling system, new gutters, paved parking lot, among others.
Lentz said she couldn’t begin to express her gratitude and appreciation to the business partners.
Impact on youth
“Having police officers interact with these kids is absolutely key,” Lentz said. “The areas that these kids live in are not safe areas. This facility gives them a place to come that’s safe, it’s fun, it’s nurturing and their interactions with cops are positive.”
In addition to building positive relationships with officers, the interaction with officers encourages youth to respect the laws, helps them to handle life’s challenges without resorting to violence and helps them become positive contributors in their community, said Lisa Pelofsky, president of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners.
Dewayne Charles and Ronnell Hatchet, both 14 who attend East High School, regularly attend the PAL Center on White Avenue.
“They help us a lot. They’re cool,” Charles said of the officers. “Say you need a ride home, they give you it. Sometimes they’ll make BBQ for us.”
Both said Coach Q. Johnson is like an older brother to them.
“He’s always helping us and showing us how to do the right thing,” Charles said, who plays basketball.
“He doesn’t just talk to you about school,” Hatchet added, who plays basketball and football. “He talks to you about life and what you need to do to get where you want to be.”
Over the years, PAL officers have helped a number of PAL youth find safe and secure housing. One youth who played in the football program had been living in a home without electricity or water, and officers helped him move into more stable housing with another family member. There was the 13-year-old boy who ran away from two officers when they drove up beside him, about to ask if he wanted to participate in the new football program. The officers caught up to the boy and told him about the PAL football program and said all they needed was his parents to sign a waiver. That’s when the 13-year-old revealed he had been living on the streets alone. Officers soon connected the boy to a group home and he became a PAL regular.
On one occasion, Sgt. Randy Sims was eating at a restaurant when a woman approached him.
“She said, ‘Police Athletic League saved my son’s life. He had been going in the wrong direction… Police Athletic League straightened him out,’” Sims said.
Now the son works full-time in a dentist’s office.
Providing a PAL Center in the community gives parents peace of mind, since they know their children are playing in a safe facility, said Nancy Simons, who serves on the PAL Board of Directors. Participating in the activities is also inexpensive; a lifetime membership costs $10, she said. Another benefit of the program is that to participate, students must maintain a 2.0 grade point average or show that they’re working toward one, she said. In addition, PAL provides after-school tutoring to students struggling in school.
“I never thought I would like it this much,” Officer Kelly Stann said of the PAL program.
Stann, who never coached previously, has worked with PAL for six years and coaches cheerleading and leads arts and crafts. When the youth become regulars at the PAL Center, she notices a difference. They’re more respectful, not as unruly and begin saying, “Yes, sir and Yes, ma’am,’” Stann said.
Stann likes building relationships with the youth and letting them see officers in a different light – as a friend, as a coach.
“Most of my girls have never even left Kansas City,” she said.
So, she decided to take them on a field trip to the Omaha Zoo. Once a year, she takes them to the CoCo Key Water Resort and also takes the cheerleaders on field trips to Christmas in the Park and the Country Club Plaza.
One of her cheerleaders lost her mom to breast cancer in 2010 and money was tight. For Christmas, Stann talked to Cerner which donated Christmas presents and presented the family with a $250 grocery card.
“It’s been like my second home,” the girl said on a video. “Cheerleading’s been really fun because of Officer Kelly. She’s been like a second mom to me.”
Lentz commended the PAL officers and said they have an “incredible amount of compassion and go above and beyond.”
“They give unselfishly,” Lentz said. “They provide unconditional love because they truly care about each and every single kid.”