There’s nothing unusual about seeing a group of kids shooting hoops after school, but it may be surprising when a fully uniformed police officer joins the game.
For David Lopez, a St. Petersburg Police Department officer and athletic director for St. Petersburg Police Athletic League (PAL), it’s part of his daily routine.
“It gets a little hot and sweaty sometimes, but it keeps me in shape!” Lopez said.
He says wearing the uniform is a positive thing. “Even though I’m playing in uniform, I think it kind of does break a barrier, where the kids can see that even though you’re a police officer, you can get active, play sports and interact with them.”
Lopez organizes team sports programs and events for PAL, including flag football, wrestling, basketball and cheerleading. It’s a full-time assignment he’s had for more than two years.
“Sports has a lot of teaching moments,” Lopez said. “When you’re playing a sport, you’re working as a team.”
He and fellow PAL athletic director, Officer Qyieisha Middlebrooks, revolve their schedules around after-school programs, weekend tournaments and open-gym basketball on Friday nights.
“These kids may not have anything else to do on a Friday night,” Lopez said. PAL’s sports programming gives these kids “the opportunity to be in a safe environment and participate in a productive activity… a positive alternative as to what they could be getting into.”
PAL Builds Community Relationships
The Police Athletic League is a nationwide program that helps local police departments build relationships in the community. With two locations in St. Petersburg, in the Woodlawn and Midtown neighborhoods, PAL’s programming serves more than 300 kids in need, ages five to 13.
“A lot of the families that we deal with just feel like they’re on their own,” Lopez said. “I think the common misconception is that we just have a bunch of juvenile delinquent criminals…That’s not the case at all. We deal with kids who need services. Maybe there’s no male role model or maybe they’re living in a one-parent household where they’re just working all the time,” Lopez said.
When Lopez and Middlebrooks aren’t busy working with the kids in the facility, they’re out in the community, on the courts and in the classrooms.
“Our mission is crime prevention through athletics, recreation and education,” Lopez said. “Our motto is, ‘We Grow Great Grown-Ups’. We’re trying to teach them how to become better people for life.”
More Than Just Athletics
Although PAL is well-known for its athletic programs, operations director Denyve Boyle wants the community to understand that PAL is “not just recreation and athletics.” She says that they “do a lot more than run and jump.”
PAL’s programming is designed to address the five key components that empower a family out of poverty: academic attainment, healthy living, mentoring, employability, and having a safe place to spend time during high-crime hours. The kids are exposed to a variety of healthy activities, from tennis and gardening to reading and presentation skills.
“We’re a catch-all. We do a lot with a little here, but we’re able to do it well,” Boyle said.
PAL’s afterschool and summer programs provide homework assistance, field trips, nutrition education, personal fitness training and Zumba classes.
They even have an urban garden onsite, bursting with everything under the sun for sautés and salads, including kale, strawberries, spinach, basil, bok choy, collard greens and more.
“Allowing the kids to taste new things and have new experiences like that is really important,” Boyle said.
Through a partnership with KC’s Camp, the youth tend the garden, learn to cook and get to bring fresh produce home to their families. During the year, they open up the garden to the community.
”When we do community events, we cut a lot of the collards and we hand out collard greens to people. So it’s fun and they enjoy it and the community loves the fresh produce.”
PAL offers youth development training and employment opportunities in the facility for low-income and some special-needs youth through a partnership with The Bolley Center, which shares the cost of their salary with PAL.
“It makes us feel good that we’re helping a population of kids go and find future employment,” Boyle said.
But maybe most importantly, kids at PAL have a support system.
PAL Cares About Families In Need
PAL has a special meaning for Officer Middlebrooks. It means community, relationships and bridging the gap between the police and the schools. It means family.
Officer Middlebrooks spends a large majority of her time at local schools mentoring kids with behavioral issues.
She recalls a specific success story that is close to her heart. The principal of a nearby elementary school, recommended Officer Middlebrooks as a mentor to a child headed toward a life of crime. After mentoring the child on multiple occasions, she has been an exemplary student and turned her life around. Eventually, this child and all 5 of her siblings became PAL kids.
“I’ve been able to bring families into PAL and that’s amazing,” Middlebrooks said. “Seeing the impact, we have on one child is great but seeing the impact we have on an entire family is even better.”
“Being a police officer and having the opportunity to build a strong relationship with the community — my community — is what makes PAL so special to me,” Middlebrooks said. “I grew up here and I want my community to be successful. Investing in these kids is like investing in the future of this community. This is what it’s all about, training future generations to create better, safer and more successful communities.”
Becoming A PAL Kid For Life
Paula Potts, the PAL Program Director, has been with PAL for over 20 years. In fact, Paula was a PAL kid. Her oldest sister was a PAL tutor, who brought her siblings to PAL daily.
“I’m grateful for the opportunities PAL had shown me many years ago and I will do anything to keep this program alive for generations to come,” Potts said. “I found my purpose here at PAL and I will continue to do for these kids what PAL had done for me.”
Most of the PAL kids live in neighborhoods were there isn’t much exposure to the arts. “We expose these kids to opportunities outside of their communities that they’ve never seen before. We open their eyes to a whole new world,” Potts said.
In many cases, PAL may be the only safe place these children can have fun and get the help they need for issues not discussed in school.
A story close to her heart involves a young man who aged-out of the PAL program but reached out to her about his current situation.
One day after school, he went to his local neighborhood park to play basketball and ended up lying face down in the grass, caught in the crossfire between two gangs.
“He said to me, “I just want to play basketball Ms. Paula”, Potts said.
This conversation sparked the start of the new middle school program in which they bus kids from their neighborhoods to the midtown PAL location for a healthy snack, tutoring, character building classes, and of course to play ball. The program started with only 10 boys and now they have 29 middle-school-aged boys on the roster.
“We give kids a fighting chance,” Potts said. “We don’t judge their past, we encourage them to do better and one day they may return to give back to this program and their community.”
Become a PAL mentor, volunteer or attend an event! PAL hosts community events throughout the year. Their next event is the Brinner (Breakfast for Dinner) fundraiser on February 8, 2018. Tickets, tables and sponsorship opportunities are available. For more information, visit stpal.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 727-800-1PAL (1725). Police Athletic League of St. Petersburg is located at 1450 16th Street North, St. Petersburg, FL 33704.