The former Hudson County Community College building at 6515 Polk St. in West New York bustled with kids Monday night as they tossed volleyballs on their new court, played basketball, and checked out the new Tai Chi and karate classes taught by volunteers who gathered to give back to their community.
“I got really tired of seeing kids in the streets with nowhere to turn,” newly appointed Police Athletic League (PAL) Executive Director of Programming and Drug Abuse Resistance Education Officer Hilenne Chemas said. “We’ve been locking up too many kids for bad choices, and now we are giving them somewhere to go. We’re trying to give them a second home.”
Police Director Michael Indri stood proudly by, watching as his longstanding dream for a PAL program finally manifested around him. He pointed to the basketball hoop in the corner of the gym as kids practiced their slam dunks.
“That used to be in my back yard, and my kids are a little disappointed, but they got over it,” Indri laughed. “It’s still a work in progress but it’s finally coming together after such a long time.”
The Holy Redeemer Church, who owns the property, has been kind enough to donate the space to the PAL program free of charge in the afternoons and evenings, save operating expenses. This keeps costs low. And all of the programs offered will be taught voluntarily by police officers and local civilians.
“We’ve been locking up too many kids for bad choices, and now we are giving them somewhere to go.” – Hilenne Chemas
PAL with benefits
Guadalupe Vasquez, 14, found out about the PAL program from her teacher at school and decided to check it out. She runs track in school and loves that they offer volleyball.
“I think it’s really cool,” she said. “It’s a good way to do something besides staying home and watching television or hanging out on the street.”
The program will provide seven different sports leagues such as (Vasquez will be pleased to know) volleyball, soccer, flag football, baseball, and basketball. Beyond these traditional athletic offerings, the PAL will combine educational programming to address the rising incidence of childhood obesity, diabetes, and nutritional deficiency.
The press release placed emphasis on what the PAL has termed the “C-skills:” critical thinking, communication, and collaboration to help kids put their best foot forward as they transition into adulthood.
One additional component to the program is their Youth Service Corps, meant to foster positive relationships between the police department and community children.
“[Our] philosophy is grounded in the belief that young people’s individual strengths and capabilities can guide them to mature, productive adulthood with our encouragement and commitment,” the release read.
Resident Rodolfo Castro stood in a classroom surrounded by eager children as he prompted them to meditatively hold a squatting position for a count of 20. He has been practicing traditional martial arts and karate since he was 5 and will teach karate and tai chi.
“Martial arts encompass both external and internal discipline,” he explained. “It’s a healthy outlet for kids and helps them channel their energy in positive ways. It’s not about fighting, but about cultivating a spiritual growth and discipline that helps kids focus and find the right mind.”
Castro is one of many, many volunteers whose passion for helping guide the next generation in the right direction has trumped the need for pay.
Greg Alan Jankowski, one of the PAL program’s development team, is a professional sports athletic trainer who has lived in town for two years. He is so passionate about the importance of physical activity in kids’ lives that he has invented his own fitness device meant to be used in a classroom to enhance learning.
He stood with two children on beams that make it difficult to balance and asked them to perform various exercises while quizzing them on different educational topics. One of them was nutrition: which vegetable had the most nutritional value – asparagus, peapods, or broccoli?
One of the children, while holding a difficult pose on the beam, said peapods. The other said broccoli.
“They’ll never forget that broccoli is the most nutritional vegetable now,” Jankowski said. “It helps put movement to critical concepts like reading, math, and science, which helps them with memory retention.”
Not also to mention, it seemed pretty fun.
Keeping it going
Indri plans to hold several fundraisers to cover the complete cost of the building’s operation and will reach out to community businesses to help cover the cost of equipment and renovation. He proposes that in these tough economic times, perhaps businesses could sponsor a few community children for $35 per kid rather than give a general lump sum.
“The money will go directly to the kids,” he said. “It’s a community effort, and its one they really need. I’m so thankful for everyone’s generosity and hard work so far. It’s going to be great.”
For more information on the West New York PAL program, visit wnypal.org, or call (201) 295-5020.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org