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‘It sounds cliche, but they are our future’: Baltimore County program engages students, especially over summer

‘It sounds cliche, but they are our future’: Baltimore County program engages students, especially over summer
Tyewone Pryor, 17, a student at the Cockeysivlle PAL Center, plays basketball with some of the younger students. Pryor was described by leaders at the PAL Center as a mentor to some of the younger kids. (Cody Boteler / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

At the Lansdowne Police Athletic League Center, Torrey Curry watched from the sidelines as about a dozen middle and high schoolers played a game of basketball.

The kids would run up and down the court, pass the ball, take their shots. All the while, Curry, who’s been a PAL staff member for three years, announced play-by-play from a microphone attached to a portable stereo.

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“Keep on movin’, c’mon," he said.

“He’s open, let’s go, dribble, dribble, dribble.”

And then, finally, “Let’s go, take the shot!"

The student’s ball arced and fell just short of the rim.

“Aw, all right, that’s OK. Good try, good try,” Curry said.

Curry said he grew up having role models through athletic leagues and local recreation activities. It was important for him, because he came from a single-parent household. That’s why he likes his job now; he can create positive examples for students like the ones he had growing up.

“Rec is my thing, I love this," Curry said, “I love them like they’re my own kids."

Around the Beltway and up I-83, the situation in Cockeysville is the same.

Andre Clark, the coordinator at the PAL center, teaches kids financial literacy, has classes for visual and performing arts, plenty of open recreation and an emphasis on leadership and mentorship.

In the hallway of the community center where the PAL program is located, Clark keeps a rotating gallery of famous, influential African-Americans. He and other staff never tell the students to pay attention or to learn about them, but seeing the faces every day leads the students to ask questions and become interested in learning about the history.

“I’m waiting for them to ask,” he said. "It gets kids to buy in.”

One of those “kids” is Tyewone Pryor, 17, who by his own admission has had a rough life. He has experienced homelessness, has gone hungry some days and, as recently as six months ago, “got into some trouble.”

Today, though, he’s a role model and mentor for younger students. He works part time at Five Below to earn some cash. He’s a student at Dulaney High School who wants to one day own his own clothing brand. And, he’s a member of PAL.

The PAL program in Baltimore County is free to schoolchildren, and runs during the academic year and over the summer at nine centers. The centers, some in schools and some in community centers, operate with different hours during the week, usually from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., plus or minus an hour.

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The centers give students access to open recreation and some structured programming, like tutoring, art and coding classes, and field trips to state parks or museums.

Pryor said he’s been coming to PAL for three years. He likes to work with the younger kids, he said. When they’re angry about something, he’ll try to make a joke to cheer them up. Or, when they’re acting up, he’ll try and remind them to appreciate the opportunities they have.

“I had a rough life at home,” he said. “You got it good here, keep striving.”

Clark said working for PAL and the county continuing to fund it were both “no-brainers.” He worried sometimes what would happen if the students didn’t have the opportunity to come to the centers and spend time with other students, he said.

“I don’t see what a lot of these kids would be doing elsewhere,” Clark said.

Clark said Pryor quickly became somebody that younger students look up to.

Clark said he especially appreciates the PAL center’s mentorship; he likes working in a spot where he can pour his energy into improving the lives of young people, he said.

“It sounds cliche, but they are our future,” Clark said.

Opportunity for students

PAL is a bit of a misnomer in Baltimore County; in 2012, then-Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson approached the county Department of Recreation and Parks to take over the program over. It was keeping too many officers off patrol duty, explained Barry Williams, the county’s director of Recreation and Parks.

“Our folks were always involved, but now we had to be in charge of it. It was a pretty easy swap,” Williams said.

He said each PAL center — between staffing and operational costs — costs the county about $150,000 annually, for a total of just over $1 million each year for the program countywide.

At recent public safety town halls, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. described PAL centers as an “upstream example” that can help fight crime and keep neighborhoods safe.

In that, he meant that the investments in PAL centers routes kids from “bad behavior options to other, more productive options,” explained his spokesman, T.J. Smith, a former spokesman for Baltimore City police.

“It also opens up the opportunity to form a relationship with police officers. Upstream in a sense that you won’t see the immediate” results, but you will later on,” Smith said.

The county’s newly approved budget includes funds for two new PAL centers, one at McCormick Elementary and one at Martin Boulevard Elementary, both in the eastern part of the county, but Smith said he was not sure when they would be opening.

The centers also provide meals for the students. Over the summer, that can be crucial, as many students who participate in the PAL program attend Title I schools, meaning they’re from low-income areas where many students qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school. When school is not in session, food insecurity becomes a concern.

As another added benefit, the programs last for about eight hours a day during the summer weeks, so parents can drop their kids off and go to work, without having to worry about the added expense and hassle of finding child care.

Despite the program changing homes from the police department to the parks department, Williams said officers do still get to stop by the centers, and three of the centers — in Woodmor, Winfield and Scotts Branch — have a school resource officer for face time between the students and the police.

That connection, according to the police department, is another benefit.

“The Police Athletic League gives the Police Department the avenue to initial that positive relationship with the young men and women in our community,” Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt said in an emailed statement. “We consistently see the overwhelming benefits of community-based programs such as PAL.”

Lisa Ritchey, the program coordinator at the Lansdowne Center, said the programs and activities at PAL centers keep students from getting into trouble.

“This is a safe haven for them,” she said.

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