Merlene Davis: Police Athletic League mentoring program benefits everyone

Police Athletic League recruiting volunteers

Herald-Leader columnistApril 17, 2012 

Police Athletic League mentors James Carter, left, Gerard Badger and Ben Thomas took a break on a PAL field trip to the Newport Aquarium earlier this month. Thomas, a retired Fayette County Public Schools safety officer, said he grew up without a father in the home; Badger said he had no role models as a child and dropped out of school.

  • If you go

    What: National Police Athletic League Mentoring Day, one of several in the country to recruit children and adults to guide them.

    When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 21.

    Where: Douglass Park, 726 Georgetown St.

    Information: Contact Connie Rayford, (859) 433-8440, or Jason Griffith, (502) 428-9235 to volunteer for mentoring activities or to become a mentor.

Last week, while I was in Fayette Circuit Court, observing human beings struggling to once again live drug-free, I got into a conversation with the bailiff, John Jackson, a retired police officer.

I have known Jackson for many years, most recently as an officer assigned to the Police Athletic League, where my husband has volunteered as a football and T-ball coach.

He asked how my husband was doing, and I said he was getting old. He had knee surgery recently and hasn't fully recovered from that, I told Jackson. In fact, he is giving up coaching his T-ball team, which he has coached for many years.

Jackson raised his eyebrows and shook his head slightly. "They will miss him," he said. "That is a big loss."

And it will be. But it shouldn't be.

My husband is special to me and our children, but he isn't all that special in the scheme of things. Just about any man could have done what he has done as a coach and mentor to kids.

Ben Thomas, for example, a retired Fayette County Public Schools safety officer, is a PAL mentor.

"I grew up without a father in the home," he said. "I know the importance of having a black male role model around."

Thomas has worked with youth for 40 years, in foster care and as a Big Brother. Frequently, one of those boys returns as a grown man just to thank him.

"I just tell them, 'I know you can do it and I know you can make it,'" Thomas said. "They just need a push early in their lives."

Mentors can change lives.

Several studies have found that adolescents who have mentors were less likely to use drugs and alcohol and had greater confidence in their school work and improved academic performance.

On Saturday, the Lexington Police Athletic League is hosting a National PAL Mentoring Day to recruit children and adults into the program.

Connie Rayford, who administers the local program, said 30 to 40 PAL units across the nation received grants to host the community-wide mentoring day in hopes of getting more men and women to make time for our youth.

"We want to educate people about the importance of mentoring," she said. "PAL has been around active forever, but that fact doesn't seem to be clicking with people."

Rayford said PAL has 40 mentors assigned to 40 boys and girls. However, there are at least 16 children, mostly boys, waiting for mentors, she said.

"Every day we get referrals from schools and from parents," she said. "It is an ongoing thing."

PAL started in 1915 in New York City as a means of offering youth an alternative to criminal behavior. Lexington's PAL unit was established in 1985 with a group of off-duty police officers who donated their time.

It offers sports programs and mentoring sessions to teach children, ages 7 to 18, self-respect and respect for authority. In Lexington, mentors meet with their assigned children at least one hour a week for one year at Consolidated Baptist Church, 1625 Russell Cave Road. Adult and child talk and listen, play games individually and in groups, and go on educational field trips.

Because of that, Rayford said, when people say our youth need places to go and things to do, they should consider PAL.

On the National PAL Mentoring Day, there will be inflatables, music, food, games and booths with information about bike safety, health programs and the PAL mentoring program for children and adult volunteers.

"We also need volunteers who are willing to work that day to make it as good as it can be," Rayford said.

You will get a chance to interact with some of the families and children who need your help.

Mentor Gerard Badger understands that need far too well.

"I don't want kids to grow up like I did," Badger said. "I grew up without any role models, without any goals in life."

Badger, who spent 20 years in the U.S. Army and worked 13 years in security at a nuclear plant, said he dropped out of school and later returned for his GED and some college courses.

"My life would have been smoother if I had done all that before I got started. I tell the kids they need an education," he said. "I like to pass that information on to them."

But the benefits don't just flow one way, Thomas said.

"The kids have no idea I get more out of it than they do," he said.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: Merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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