GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - The Gulfport Police Department website has a link to the Gulfport Police Athletic League (PAL) After School Program page. A description on that page calls the PAL Center on Old Pass Road, "A fun, safe place for kids."
Right before Christmas, that center closed. And, according to the organization's president, there are no plans to reopen it.
We first learned about the closing from a parent who called WLOX News wanting to know why PAL's doors would remain shut. It was obvious tears were streaming down her face as she passionately explained how the Gulfport Police Athletic League Center helped keep her children out of trouble. Her children used that facility for years, she said. She called it a Godsend, because it provided structure for kids who lived in a neighborhood with trouble all around them.
Though he submitted his resignation and planned to step away from the board, the current Gulfport PAL president is still David Shoemake.
"It isn't going to be open because the Gulfport Police Department pulled its manpower," the PAL president said.
Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania appreciates how important the PAL Center is to parents and the children who used it. "For those kids there, it's a loss," he told WLOX News.
Papania has nothing but good things to say about the center, and the people who brought a safe haven for children to a crime stricken community. "I don't want to minimize the services rendered by PAL at all. They've done a great job," he said during a Wednesday morning phone conversation.
Nevertheless, the chief says tight finances, fewer resources and other programs available for children have made the PAL complex less of a priority. According to Chief Papania, PAL was open three hours a day, four days a week. "The building is quite expensive," the chief said, noting his budget pays for its upkeep. "Let's take the opportunity, work in partnership with our youth court and our schools and find programs that currently don't exist."
Several years ago, Shoemake, a team of officers and a collection of community leaders led the charge to secure much of the $1.3 million to build the Gulfport PAL complex. At the February, 2010 ribbon cutting, the property's former owner proudly said, "They've taken what was a drug infested area where people were afraid to come and made it fantastic."
Others noted the same thing. What was a property in Gaston Point known for gang activity and violence became a place for children to be mentored. "We provided structure for children," Shoemake said. "We force fed education. We always have tutors. In order to play, you have to do your homework."
Shoemake said the tutors and the officers assigned to the Gulfport Police Athletic League Center worked with an estimated 250-300 children a year. Most of those kids were in elementary school. In many instances, they were at risk youth who needed guidance to lead productive lives. That guidance often came from the patrolmen who worked with the kids.
"Without the police officers, PAL isn't PAL," said Shoemake. "They were the nuts and bolts of the program."
Shoemake says he received an email from Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania about six weeks ago. In that correspondence, Papania reportedly explained he had a new vision for how to reach Gulfport's youth.
"PAL didn't fit his model for youth interaction," Shoemake said.
So, the center closed right before the Christmas break. For now, the complex on Old Pass Road remains locked, and according to Shoemake it has "no known future."
WLOX News has been told by Gulfport council members the police department budget has money in it to fund initiatives that center on the city's children. Through a series of emails from the police chief to the council, Chief Papania explained how his department supports six other programs impacting children. Those emails, councilmen Ricky Dombrowski confirmed, indicate funding those programs was more beneficial for Gulfport's youth because, in Papania's words, the PAL model was "no longer the best set up for our police department."
The chief has been working with Gulfport schools on one successful program. Now, he's talking with Judge Margaret Alfonso on ways to help children a bit older than the kids who stopped by PAL. "You take your resources and you look at all the potential programs you need to be in," he said.
On the Gulfport Police Department's website, you'll find PAL's mission statement. It is, "To make a positive difference in the lives of young people by providing opportunities to learn discipline, leadership, teamwork, the importance of learning the rules, sportsmanship and patience. By teaching these life skills, PAL will assist in developing the children of our City in becoming productive citizens that contribute to the overall quality of life in the City of Gulfport."
Without support to run its Gaston Point center, the PAL president says his group must find a new way to help Gulfport children become productive citizens. Shoemake noted the Gulfport PAL board has $60,000 in the bank. That board will meet soon, he said, to figure out what to do next. How to share that money with other groups that work with children is one consideration the board may take up.