Boxing and double-dutch jump rope were all the rage in 1960 when the Police Athletic League of St. Petersburg opened its doors. Today PAL's athletics have grown to include basketball, track and flag football. Athletics may be its base, but sports are no longer PAL's only lineup. After-school and summer programs, Boy Scout troops, mentoring and a truancy plan help more than 500 youngsters every year.
This month, PAL celebrates 50 years of building positive bonds between police officers and youths. A 1950s-style, glamorous gala is set for Friday at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club in St. Petersburg. Tampa Bay Buccaneer football great Mike Alstott serves as honorary chairman.
Usually a Founders Club Breakfast is held. But this year's anniversary was too important for an early riser salute, Robin Grabowski, gala chairwoman, said.
"This is a major celebration for PAL," said Grabowski. "Everyone is invited to attend."
The gala will also applaud 50 PAL founders who supported through donations or service.
Ed Schatzman, who has dedicated 30 years to PAL, remembers its humble start.
"The north end of the basketball court ended abruptly at the basket because we couldn't fit a regulation court in the building," Schatzman said. "Our home team always had an advantage because our kids knew how to 'run up the wall' during games."
The first facility was on Fifth Avenue N, near 16th Street. Now PAL is at 1450 16th St. N, beside Woodlawn Elementary School.
Schatzman and his wife, Stefanie, sponsored a child for the summer program last year. Schatzman has been involved in PAL Scouts, served on the board of directors and helped with the after-school reading program.
"We know kids are receiving wholesome programs and great contact with police officers that will be key to their choosing a positive path to being good citizens," Schatzman said.
Planting seeds, executive director Melissa Byers said, is what PAL is all about. Its mission is crime prevention through athletics, education and recreation.
"We offer young people opportunities to enrich their self-esteem and team-building skills in a structured, nonthreatening environment," she said. The idea is to keep kids busy between the peak hours of youth violence and crime between 3 and 9 p.m.
Programs include daily fitness, art, drama, soccer, tennis, games, movies and homework time. Character development focuses on issues like gang involvement, making choices, stranger danger, bullying prevention and goal setting.
A new emphasis is being placed on health and the environment.
"We are planting an organic garden behind the facility and putting more focus on healthy eating," Byers said.
PAL works with disadvantaged youths, but children from all walks of life are welcome. Scholarships are offered.
More than 300 children each year get involved with PAL through a truancy intervention program. Officers pick up youngsters skipping school and wandering the streets. The students are brought to PAL's facility. They get help with ways to increase school attendance, improve their grades and find out what else they need to be successful. Often they are referred to outside services for help. That may mean counseling, drug treatment or school-based services.
"This is a much more productive use of their days," Byers said. The issues range from skipping school and low academics to homelessness and substance abuse.
Success is measurable.
"Over 60 percent of these students show improved attendance as a result of this intervention," Byers said.
"Our St. Pete PAL has kept kids on the right path for 50 years; and if that isn't important, I don't know what is," said Schatzman. "The kids of PAL will make St. Petersburg's future bright."