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By Meaghan Alvarado
Photos courtesy of the St. Johns Police Athletic League
The goal of St. Johns PAL (Police Athletic League) is to help kids mature into young men and women. To expose them to law enforcement at a young age and to show them that public safety really cares about their wellbeing long-term,” that according to Jackson Taylor, Executive Director at St. John’s PAL. Originally started in 1914 by a police commissioner in New York, PAL was established to create a safe place to play, lower temptations for wrongdoing, and open an opportunity for positive communications between children and police officers. In 1991 the program was begun locally by then St. Johns County Sheriff Neil Perry who had those same objectives in mind.
About 3,500 children aged five through fourteen are involved in PAL locally. Flag Football is the most popular sport with nearly 550 kids taking part, but they also offer everything from cheerleading to taekwondo, lacrosse, and basketball. Local resident and mom, Jen Reed, says that what drew her to the program initially, was the variety of sports offered, specifically lacrosse and flag football which were not available at her children’s elementary and middle schools.
PAL also offers an explorer program which gives young people a peek into law enforcement careers. Participants get to hear officers in various divisions describe their jobs and what they do. Older kids even have a chance to go along on a ride with an officer. Plus, explorers give back to the community by assisting in 5k’s, food drives, and more.
Fees for the program are based on a sliding scale to ensure that everyone, even disadvantaged youth have a chance to play. Many of the players are picked up after school for practice, taken home after practice, and spend entire Saturdays at the field. Without the help of many coaches and volunteers, some of these youths would be able to get to the event.
“PAL gives at-risk kids a place to go,” says Taylor, “…but nobody is there when they leave (PAL).” To eliminate kids from aging out of the program too soon, they’re adding a leadership council to support the students throughout high school and up to age 21. Taylor adds, “We’re more than just an athletics program. We give these young people an opportunity to be with adults who can show them how to be good citizens as well as good teammates.”
Many of the program alumni give back by taking on the roles of referees or coaches. Taylor says it gives them something to do and as a bonus — it’s a paid gig for the kids. Reed says, “The biggest part of PAL for my kids was the relationships and friendships they developed over the years with their peers, as well as with the adult coaches.” Her son Austin, and daughter Brooke both active with PAL went on to referee for various PAL sports on a regular basis.
With a regular staff of eight and over 200 area volunteers who contribute throughout the year, PAL is a true community-based organization geared towards using athletics to better kids lives. For more information please visit the St. Johns PAL website here.