PAL gets youths off streets, into creativity Police: Students flock to the Fort Worthington Police Athletic League center, where energy is funneled into productive activity.

December 13, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

It's arts and crafts day at the Fort Worthington Police Athletic League center, and, as usual, the small room is bustling with creative minds trying to turn thoughts into reality.

Willie Chance, 15, is trying to win a citywide drawing contest sponsored by the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Tavon White, 7, is creating a perfectly wrapped Christmas box to decorate the hallway.

Six-year-old Latisha Potts just wants a chance to be creative. At home, she says matter-of-factly, "we don't have crayons."

With diverse experiences and backgrounds, from broken homes and solid families, the children flock to Fort Worthington, one of 27 such centers scattered around the city that are the Police Department's answer to getting children off street corners and into productive lives.

It is the cornerstone of Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier's many initiatives, after-school centers run by police officers whose full-time job often involves helping neglected and forgotten children who go from dilapidated homes to struggling schools to violent streets.

The PAL center at Fort Worthington Elementary School is thriving, with more than 400 children enrolled. The center attracts students from several nearby schools and neighborhoods.

And nearly all of the children, it seems, can't get enough arts and crafts.

"They could do it every day," said Officer Fred Allen, who started the sessions after noticing children doodling in class. He told them that if they would pay attention to the teachers, he would let them draw after school.

Vashon Smith, 11, is designing a Jeopardy game and hopes to have a tournament. Artiesha Artis put the PAL center on the World Wide Web. Vanessa Cornish, 16, a junior at Lake Clifton High School, volunteers to earn her community-service credits.

The doubts that were raised when Frazier started the PAL centers three years ago have long been dispelled. Some City Council members were angry when PAL took over the city recreation centers, some of which had been criticized for closing early or being too dangerous.

"We're not just an average Joe who is a rec leader," said Sgt. Donald Walters, who oversees the Eastern District's three centers. "We are police officers who care for the community."

Frazier has done what the recreation centers, struggling on meager city funds, could not do. He has gotten tens of thousands of dollars in private and corporate donations. Soon, each center will have its own van, and new equipment arrives almost daily at Fort Worthington. The program won't succeed if the officers can't deliver.

"It's hard to tell a kid we are going to a museum and then have to tell them we can't go," Allen said. "I think they get enough letdowns at home."

At Fort Worthington, and particularly in the arts and crafts class, a group of 16 children bustled about one day this week. Some were wrapping empty boxes to decorate for a coming visit by Baltimore Ravens players. Others were drawing Christmas trees and Santa Clauses for their cards.

Derek Dunn, 9, drew a star with a mouth, eyes and nose. He rejected suggestions to color it in. "I don't color my pictures," he warned. "It gets to be a mess."

"I'll bet you're going to win," Carl Gill, 8, told him, as he put finishing touches to a red cap atop his version of a holiday Bart Simpson.

"I brainstorm to get my ideas," he said. "Brainstorming means thinking until you get an idea."

Arts and crafts are so popular that the PAL leaders use the class as a bonus for children who bring in good report cards.

Unlike recreation centers, PAL centers make good grades mandatory. Allen keeps in contact with teachers, wanders through classrooms to check up on the children and inspects all report cards; the good ones are posted.

A failing grade means no basketball, no arts and crafts, no access to computers. It means tutoring in the homework room, where all children must spend two hours after school doing their work while listening to soft jazz.

"If they're in here playing ball, I want to know what they are doing in class," Allen said. "You can slam dunk a basketball at 14, but it doesn't do you any good if you can't put your name down on a piece of paper."

Allen said some of his colleagues on the street scoff at the PAL program. "But if we have 100 kids in here from 2 to 10 p.m, the prime crime-committing hours for juveniles, that's 100 kids that patrol doesn't have to worry about."

Even at Fort Worthington, there are plenty of concerns and plenty of children to worry about. For every stellar report card on the wall, there is a child struggling with the basics of learning.

For every Vashon Smith creating a Jeopardy game or Artiesha Artis designing a Web page, there is a child in a home without crayons.

A 13-year-old girl, asked to draw a Halloween scene in arts and crafts class, sketched a man firing a gun at a victim dismembered into three pieces. She included blood and the victim screaming "Help!!!!"

Allen became concerned and talked to the child about where she got such an idea. "I'm mad that my father got locked up," she told the officer.

"You can spot a kid with a problem just by what they put down on paper," Allen said, shaking his head. "Once you sit down and talk to the kids, you find out much more than you wanted to know."

Pub Date: 12/13/97

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