Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Police Activities League grows in shadow of escalating gang violence


When the Police Activities League began shuttling local youths from school to sports practices in 1999, it was a program that served about 50 kids annually.
Now PAL, as it’s known, works with more than 1,500 youths each year, bolsters an annual operating budget of more than $700,000 and transports about 50 students each day to practice fields, classrooms or its computer lab on Anapamu Street.

“It just keeps growing, growing and growing,” said Santa Barbara Police Officer Kent Wojciechoski, who has worked with PAL since its inception. “They’re really thirsty for something to do.”
Wojciechoski said the majority of young people who participate in PAL programs are elementary and junior high school students, many of who come from families that lack the resources to enroll their children in pricey club sports teams, or other after school programs that cost money.
The majority of the children also happen to be at the prime age for joining a gang, a threat Wojciechoski says they’re peppered with on a daily basis.
“They’re just right there on the fence,” he said. “Once they go to the other side it’s hard to get them back.”

The sports side

What PAL lacks in facilities and manpower, it makes up for in a grass-roots effort to get kids involved with programs that are positive and safe.
With a modest staff of four full-time employees and eight part-time, Wojciechoski said PAL’s success hinges on its transportation element and partnerships it has forged with a number of already successful programs.
“What we try to do is not reinvent the wheel,” he said. “The kids are there, the programs are there, the question is how to get the most kids in the programs.
“That’s what we do.”
One example of this is the PAL Pony League baseball team, which will take the field for the first time this April.
Wojciechoski said officials at Pony League will provide the league, uniforms and equipment, while PAL will provide the kids and the transportation.
One of the newest PAL programs are two soccer teams, one for 15 year olds and another for 13 year olds.
Wojciechoski said the teams are a direct response to the March 14, 2007 gang melee on State Street that left 15-year-old Luis Angel Linares dead and another boy charged with his murder.
An onslaught of town hall meetings followed the gang killing and one of the things PAL heard from parents is that their children needed a place to play soccer.
“They said ‘we’ll make sure our kids are there if you start soccer,’” he said. “It filled up quick.”
The two teams compete in the Oxnard PAL League on most Saturdays and occasionally travel to tournaments throughout the state, Wojciechoski said.
One of the men who volunteer to make the soccer team a success is Amador Castro, who coaches the 13-year-old team and enlisted his services after the recent escalation in youth violence.
“It keeps them out of trouble,” Castro said. “I love what I do.”
Antonio Quintero, a 14-year-old La Cumbre Junior High student, said the trek across town to Ortega Park to play soccer a couple of days each week is well worth his time.
“It’s fun to hang out with your friends and you get to do exercise,” he said, noting that he thinks PAL does a lot to help prevent at-risk youth from joining a gang.
Mauricio Silva, a 15-year-old Santa Barbara Junior High student, said his favorite part about PAL is meeting new friends and it’s a far cry from “doing drugs and playing video games.”
Wojciechoski said there is currently a waiting list to get into the soccer program, but by April, soccer, dance and martial arts programs will be offered at the other junior highs in the area.
But the fact that kids from both sides of town are coming together at Ortega Park is a hopeful sign for Wojciechoski.
“They’re crossing those barriers to come to a team,” he said. “We’re hoping that we’ve kind of broken down some of these area type issues.”

Art and computers

Wojciechoski, who stands 6-feet, 9-inches tall and is known as “Wojo,” said each day children who participate in PAL programs experience things they might not otherwise ever get the chance of doing.
One of those day-to-day things is an art class offered through the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
He said 50 elementary school children attend the art class two days each week over a 10-week span. At the same time, another 50 children utilize the PAL computer lab, which was made available through a $125,000 donation from First Republic Bank two years ago.
Wojciechoski said PAL also works with UC Santa Barbara. The students in the computer lab talk live with students at UCSB, who help them complete homework packets.
Another bank of computers near the homework area is known as the digital editing lab, where children work on editing digital photos and videos.
Wojciechoski said students who use this lab are taken on periodic field trips to places like the Santa Barbara Zoo and the Ty Warner Sea Center, where they shoot hundreds of photos. When they return to the lab, they are taught how to edit the photos using Photoshop and other digital programs.
The children who participate in these two programs come from five of the area’s elementary schools, which include Franklin, McKinley, Harding, Adams and Cleveland.
All of the programs, whether educational or athletic based, are free of charge.
Wojciechoski said this is one of the main characteristics that distinguishes PAL from other youth programs in the area and it eliminates the stigma that he says sometimes accompanies a child who the other children know is on a “scholarship.”
One of PAL’s busiest times of the year is summer, when it provides access to dozens of weeklong camps for about 500 children.
Dubbed the Campership Alliance, PAL joins forces with local organizations such as the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, the Santa Barbara Zoo, Santa Barbara YMCA and Elings Park to get children enrolled in a summer camp.

Youth Leadership Council

For junior high and high school age youths who want to do more than sports and educational programs, the Youth Leadership Council exists.
Made up of 20 PAL participants, Wojciechoski said the council gets to travel to Sacramento each year to meet with local representatives and learn about the inner workings of government, and some even visit Washington D.C. for a national PAL leadership conference.
Last weekend, nine members of the council traveled to Truckee, Calf. Where they were given a half-day snowboarding lesson and honed their skills on the slopes for the remainder of the time.
Capt. Ed Szeyller, executive director of PAL, said when one of the girl’s on the council traveled to Washington D.C., it was her first time outside of Santa Barbara.
“They just experience stuff that you and I take for granted,” Szeyller said.
When asked if he thinks the PAL programs work, Wojciechoski said it’s difficult to know, but noted that anything, big or small, someone can do to improve the life of anyone is worthwhile.
“You don’t really know,” he said. “The more positive things you give a kid around the negative influences, the more chances they’re going to have to succeed.”
More information about PAL and the programs it offers is available at

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