Social Issues: “They’re Really Adept At Helping The Kids Understand How Today Impacts Tomorrow.”

Ted Qualli is the executive director of the Philadelphia Police Athletic League, which provides youth in high-crime and low-income Philadelphia neighborhoods a safe place to go when not in school, as an alternative to the streets. Founded in 1947, programming at the 20 PAL Centers throughout the city includes sports, mentorship and educational assistance.

Whether homework or home runs, officers help the kids all along the way.


What is your position with the Police Athletic League?

I oversee the non-profit side of the Police Athletic League. So we’re both a 501(c)(3) non-profit and a unit of the Philadelphia Police Department. Those two entities come together to form PAL.

The unit of the police department has 30-something police officers. It’s really community policing, proactive crime prevention. That reports up to the commissioner, just like other specialized units of the police department. There’s a process to request transfer into the unit.

On the non-profit side we provide, hopefully, everything that unit needs to accomplish its mission, which is essentially cops helping kids. We’re focused on three areas: crime, character and education. We try to provide services in high-crime, low-income neighborhoods.

PAL Centers are basically a safe haven for kids to go in those neighborhoods where they have the opportunity to interact with, learn from, be mentored by a police officer. Every interaction is a positive one there, opposed to a police officer meeting a child for the first time in a challenging situation, on a street corner, in the back of a squad car, they’re meeting them on a basketball court, or at a computer lab or a homework club. It’s a different approach to community policing.

There are PALs across the country, none that we’re aware of that have the same complement of officers and the long commitment that Philadelphia does. I oversee the non-profit side and we do everything from the fundraising to the facilities management to ordering the T-shirts that the PAL kids have, everything you can think of from the business side of things.


What kind of impact do you think you’ve had, specifically on lower income areas?

We’re focused on crime. Six to eight blocks are basically where we draw the kids from. Most kids are walking to the PAL Centers. We’re hopeful to reduce juvenile crime in those areas, if for no other reason, the kids have something to do. We’re an after school program. Juvenile crime tends to peak in the after school hours, 3-7 p.m. We’re open until 9 p.m. every day at our centers.

When kids have an opportunity to be mentored by consistent adults, in this instance they happen to be police officers, and have the opportunity to engage in structured sports and other programs like our group mentoring, we have the opportunity to move the needle on character a little bit, develop some resilience and some grit, perseverance in the kids, positive associations with groups, positive interactions with adults, forward thinking, thinking beyond their current situation, be it going to high school, going to college, getting a job as an electrical contractor, whatever it may be, and, to some degree, education.

Hopefully when kids are coming in and an adult is asking questions and setting expectations of them, they’re more likely to go to school, and if you’re likely to go to school, go on to the next grade. In those three buckets, all three of those contribute to a more productive life. You’re hard pressed to get a job with a living wage without at least a high school degree. You’re not going to get that high school degree if you’re not going to school, or not progressing onto the next grades.

Life’s going to throw a lot at everyone. We all need some level of persistence, grit and perseverance, mentors and folks we can lean on to help us figure things out. I think that cuts across everything in life, no matter who you are. We all have someone we hopefully can turn to in times of need. When these kids have that, and we see it all the time, they talk to their police officers and they help them navigate situations. We believe that by understanding that and developing those skill sets, and they’re skills just like shooting a free throw, these officers are helping these kids with how to deal with a challenging situation and develop those skill sets. It’s going to help them in life, which hopefully will result in them being less at risk of being poor or unemployed or falling victim to fast money that drug dealing could provide.


What’s one story of a PAL kid who benefitted from the program that has stuck out to you?

The cops themselves have tons of examples. This is our 70th anniversary. We have several police officers who are PAL kids themselves. There’s a police officer in the unit right now who runs the Bluford PAL Center and he will tell you that college wasn’t on his radar. He was doing his thing, no real outlook on the future, no sort of forward thinking, just sort of going about life. If not for his PAL officer saying, “No man, you could go to college. You’re a good basketball player, you’re smart, you got a great personality, you have everything it takes to be successful in life. You can do anything.” But he wasn’t getting that push anywhere else. He got that from his PAL police officer and he took him on a tour of college.

First time he ever stepped foot on a college campus was with that PAL officer and that’s life changing. And for him it was to know that there’s someone else out there that believes in you, that’s willing to write a letter of support for your application and things like that. It’s not that simple. It didn’t just happen because the officer said, “Let’s do it.” It happened because they built a trusting relationship over time. Then this wasn’t advice coming from some nameless guidance counselor that you see once a year or whatever the case may be, it’s just a person, this was someone that he valued.

Currently at the Harrowgate PAL Center, the PAL officer that runs that center has a partner who was his PAL kid. So now he’s a PAL officer coming full circle working with the officer that mentored him. He will tell you the story that if not for that PAL officer, he would have gone down a different track in life. There wasn’t a whole lot to do positive in the neighborhood, and the negative opportunities were boundless. That officer in that situation created opportunity for him. He happened to choose law enforcement as well.

We’re not trying to produce more cops here, we have some that have gone through it, but we’re also not trying to produce NBA players. We’re trying to help these kids understand the options that they have and maybe try and navigate and connect some of the dots. It’s easy for kids to hear you got to do better in school, you got to do this, you got to do that, but not to understand why. I think that’s something that our officers excel at in helping these kids why doing better in school helps them even if they want to be a professional football player. You still have to learn how to read because the playbook is thicker than a dictionary. If you want to be a police officer you have to pass a drug test and be able to do this and you have to know all the laws and all these different things.

I think they’re really adept at helping the kids understand how today impacts tomorrow, which is a heady subject if you’re a kid, right? You’re just thinking about what are we doing tonight and what’s that girl’s number, silly things like that. I think the officers are pretty good at doing that.


Where are you in terms of your metrics as a non-profit?

We’re still very early in the data collection phase of things as a non-profit. We have some basic character surveys that we look at, we’re seeing positive results. It’s also tougher to measure something over a longer period of time, we’re only two years in to this more robust measuring.

A year prior to us opening the Harrowgate PAL center in Kensington we looked at all juvenile crime six to eight blocks around that center. A year after we opened we looked at the same crime and compared it to city wide. Juvenile crime was down across the board much more significantly [at the Harrowgate PAL] than it was down city-wide. So good news, it was going down city-wide. City-wide it went down around seven or eight percent, down there in that same [Harrowgate] area it went down around 30 percent. We believe we played a big role in that decrease. Idle hands, there was more for the kids to do.

We’re not the non-profit that’s going to say, “You’re not going to be poor if you come to PAL.” It’s not that simple, but we think we’re helping the kids develop skill sets, mindsets and attitudes, quite frankly, that will be more beneficial and will help them achieve and earn opportunities to help them navigate toward a more productive path in life. Five years ago we didn’t even take attendance in the centers, as mind boggling as that is, because we’re a drop-in center as well, even if you just come once. You know what, you were safe that night, perfectly reasonable outcome. Hard to raise money for that outcome, but it’s fine. We’re here to be safe havens.


What kind of impact do you think being a safe haven has had on the parents? 

So, I think where were at our best is when we have active parental engagement. You take a center like this Harrowgate PAL Center, or Rizzo which is right next door here, there are a ton of parents that are involved. They’re coming in and there’s parents versus kids night where they’re playing against each other whether it’s basketball or soccer or whatever the case may be. So the impact on the parents is several fold. They know that their kid is somewhere safe. That’s just a huge relief in and of itself. We’re not a child care facility, but also sometimes we recognize that we’re playing that role. That mother has instructed her son to get home from school and go directly to the PAL Center, at minimum the hour and a half until she gets home, and you know what? That’s OK. We’re a safe place for that child to be. There’s a little bit of peace of mind I think, which is a huge deal in a city that has the challenges that ours does.

Second, I think is the child builds a relationship with the police officer and so does the parent. This is a trusted adult and someone that they can talk to, not just about their child but what we see is they talk to the police officer about challenges in the neighborhood and what’s going on. I think it creates a positive conduit to offer feedback to the police department. We’re not here trying to circumvent the “no snitching” mentality. That’s not what we’re here to do, but we all know in certain neighborhoods people will not speak. They’re just not talking after an incident happens.

PAL officers sort of have a different level of respect in the community because they’re there every single day with the kids. They’re almost taken for granted. They’re there and they’re delivering programming and they’re a positive force and someone could come in and say, “Hey, there’s been some bad stuff going on lately and I’m not going to say who it is but it might be happening down the street there,” or something like that. That officer also talks to the community, the district, and all of the sudden there’s a free flow of information sharing that I think only helps everyone involved. That’s sort of a secondary positive impact I think because the more citizens that have positive relationships with police I think the better we are.

The kids first and foremost, but the parents pretty much are pretty actively involved and engaged with the officers as well. Then it’s a resource. It can be expensive to get a tutor or those sorts of things. Maybe you’d love to have your child play a sport, for example golf. Golf is really expensive. Not a lot of inner city kids have the opportunity to be exposed to golf. We have 200 something kids playing golf all over the region through PAL all summer long. It’s cost efficient.

No parent or child ever pays for anything we do. Everything we do is free. Hopefully we reduce a little bit of burden on the parents, especially in a city where it’s a lot of single parents, it’s a lot of people that don’t have a lot of resources. We can reduce that burden a little bit. So often when we see challenges in families and in neighborhoods, stress is a major complicating factor. You’ve got bills or mortgage to pay or all these different things, it’s like one after the next after the next. There’s violence in the streets. If we can help remove one of those things and the child is safe and it’s free and it’s fun, that’s a huge deal. So hopefully that plays a positive role for the parent as well, but the kid is our primary audience.


What kind of economic burden does that lift off the parents’ shoulders with all of your programming being free? 

I don’t know how to quantify it, but summer camps can be expensive and all those sorts of things. We don’t charge for anything. Some non-profits charge and they don’t charge a whole lot, but zero is always better. But that’s it – fun, safe, free. That’s our motto. Fun, safe and free and it’s cops helping kids. There is a police officer running every center and at the center of everything we do.


Between the services being free and it already being a taxpayer expense, it seems like a no-brainer to take advantage of the resources PAL has to offer.

For our lens, yeah. One of the things that I think we’re able to do that not a lot of non-profits are, it’s not a knock against them, different models, but we’re able to scale in a different way. You can fit a lot of kids in a gym. We have one sometimes two police officers there and they’re supported by other adults. We strive for 20-to-1 or 25-to-1 youth to adult ratio. Structured activities in particular, like sports, but we have chess competitions and city-wide academic competitions and things like that. We’re able to get a lot of kids in the door. We serve from 6 to 18, so earlier in the afternoon right after school you tend to get the 6-, 7-, 8-year-olds, maybe 9-year-olds. And a couple hours later, when those kids cycle out of computer club and homework club and into the gym, then the 10-, 11-, 13-year-olds come in the homework club and the computer club. And those kids go home and we see the teenagers later at night. I don’t have a return on investment study done yet, I would love to do it, but the cost per youth served I think we’re pretty good bang for the buck.


– Text and image by Jared Phillips.

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