Dover PAL making major impact with youth

DOVER — Members of the Police Athletic League of Dover, Inc., are still working out the kinks in writing a charter for the brand new organization.

However, charter or not, there are many exciting projects for the area’s youth that are already taking place under the PAL umbrella.

There is an after-school basketball program that meets at William Henry Middle School twice a week as well as a Fort A.B.L.E. mentoring effort that takes place five days a week at the former Simon Circle Boys and Girls Club.

Keith Hester, a master corporal with the Dover police, has been in charge of the city’s PAL since March 2016. He said it’s been a non-stop process ever since he took over.

More than sports

Dover Police Department Master Cpl. Keith Hester leads sixth graders in push-ups before the PAL basketball program begins. (Delaware State News/Mike Finney)

Master Cpl. Hester said it’s been a lot more than just throwing touchdown passes or swishing a basketball through a hoop, it’s about developing mentoring programs with older kids in the community to serve as role models to the youth that has really been paying dividends.

“How I explain to the kids is, ‘If you are to walk through this door, it’s not going to look like gym, it’s going to look like boot camp,’” said Master Cpl. Hester, who spent 23 of his 28 years with the Dover police as a student resource officer in the Capital School District.

James Stanley, left, and Juan Jordan, eighth-graders at Central Middle School, serve as mentors to the youth in the Police Athletic League.

“They know walking through that door that everybody — we’re part of a family. We try to develop a family-dynamic thing. We’ve been pretty fortunate that all of the kids, they adapt. It only takes maybe one or two classes and they’re all on board with our expectations.”

Those expectations mean doing the best they can in order to achieve in the classroom, staying away from drugs and alcohol, avoiding gang activity and developing friendships that can last a lifetime.

The sports, well, they’re fun, but they are usually secondary to the life-lessons.

“I think it’s extremely important,” said Cpl. Brian Gedney, the student resource officer at William Henry. “It gives the kids something to do after school and it gives them different exposure to us.

“We enjoy it. We’ve got a good group of kids here and they’re really into the program itself. It gives them a different outlook on police officers.”

Finding success at middle-school ages

The target age for most of Dover’s PAL programs is the impressionable middle school years of between fifth and eighth grades.

Master Cpl. Hester said that is an important time when kids need to have an opportunity to excel in life, rather than just the opportunity to hang out on the streets after school and fizzle out.

Students involved in the Police Athletic League at William Henry gather in the gymnasium after school.

The PAL began its after-school program at William Henry Middle School at the beginning of the school year and has attracted 20 to 25 kids right off the bat — peaking at 50 during the Christmas break. They have participated in rugby, dodgeball, hockey, flag football and basketball.

“We’ll talk about instances that may have happened in the school or another school,” Master Cpl. Hester said. “We kind of address that situation and to just keep them informed, ‘Hey, this is what happened, this is where you need to be when something like that goes down.’

“If not, now they have an understanding that when we intervene that we are going to play a part in that situation.”

Using mentors to create leaders

Police Athletic League officer Master Cpl. Keith Hester talks to students involved in the PAL program at William Henry Middle School.

One thing that is really catching on in both the William Henry and Fort A.B.L.E. programs is getting older kids to mentor and help shape the attitudes and mindsets of the younger ones.

“The concept is we’ll have this core group of kids that will become leaders that will assist with our programs in the PAL system,” Lt. Chris Hermance said, of the Fort A.B.L.E. program. “It is military-oriented, so it runs a little tougher and a little tighter. Nobody steps across the line out there. It holds to a high standard and is very successful.”

James Stanley and Juan Jordan are eighth-graders at Central Middle School. They are among eight of 14 players on Central coach Stephen Poole’s basketball team that serve as core mentors.

“I like working with the kids and helping them out,” Juan Jordan said. “It’s great considering how young they are and how hard they push themselves to do what they’ve got to do to get to the next level.”

“I enjoy it,” said James Stanley. “It’s nice to just help out the community. It’s good for the youth and it’s always good for educational purposes.”

PAL is greatly needed

While the Kent County Recreation Center opened last year, Master Cpl. Hester said the PAL program is a needed component in the Dover community and a minority population that largely comes from single-parent homes.

He points to numbers such as the Dover Police Department making more than 300 juvenile arrests in both 2015 and 2016 for a variety of crimes, many of which involved the use of firearms, drug dealing, armed robbery and rape.

A sixth-grader at William Henry works on his layup skills.

Master Cpl. Hester said it is the police department’s partnerships with other organizations such as the Dover Housing Authority, Delaware Department of Correction, FBI and the Green Beret that helped the Simon Circle Boys and Girls Club reopen recently and rebrand itself Fort A.B.L.E. after sitting vacant for a year.

It is projects like these that PAL and others are hoping will finally help curb those juvenile crime numbers.

Mr. Poole said PAL-type programs can help bring stability to a community’s youth.

“When Justin Downen, the FBI special agent working with Fort A.B.L.E. in Simon Circle, approached me, I said I’ve been waiting for somebody like you to come along for years,” he said. “I’ve been coaching in this community for years and what happens is that we get kids at one level and then they go somewhere else and we don’t have that tie with them, per se.

“This way what we want to do is keep them all the way until high school starting at the middle-school age.”

Mr. Poole said he can see changes beginning already with the mentoring program.

“People from the community have been stopping in and they’re getting a lot of attention from some adults as far as people wanting to give their time and everything else, so it’s been wonderful,” he said.

Not done growing

Central Middle School basketball coach Stephen Poole offers up some basketball tips during a PAL session at William Henry.

Last year, the Dover Police Department bought basketballs as well as two professional-grade basketball-court systems that can be moved to wherever they’re needed.

Community outreach events last summer with the basketball courts helped to put the PAL program on the map.

PAL will be hosting its “Spring Jam 2” at Loockerman Way Plaza on April 20 and will also be represented at NCALL’s Community Day on May 20.

“A lot of times we’ll be doing spur-of-the-moment pickup games,” Lt. Hermance said. “Depending on what’s going on and where places need attention, where we need to kind of break through some tension, we’ll make arrangements to go out and set up courts and close down the street. Those things can literally happen in a few days.”

Master Cpl. Hester is excited about what’s to come and thanked Capital School District Superintendent Dan Sheldon for allowing PAL to utilize some of its facilities, including Central Middle and Towne Point Elementary for activities this summer.

“A lot of our success has come from our partnerships within the community,” he said. “We can’t thank everyone enough for helping us get this ball rolling, including all of our officers, teachers and mentors.”

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