For 19 of the 25 years he’s worn a Philadelphia Police Department uniform Ernie Rehr has worked at the Rizzo Police Athletic League (PAL) center in Port Richmond.
“PAL is one of the crime prevention units of the police department where we offer young boys and girls between the ages of six and 18 after school activities, to make the right choices and stay out of heading down that path of crime and juvenile delinquency,” says Officer Rehr, the director of the Rizzo PAL.
The Police Athletic League started in 1947, when a group of off-duty police officers began organizing children in their neighborhood to play baseball and football.
Today, PAL serves 26,000 children in the Philadelphia area alone, with 27 of its community centers sprinkled about the city.
Operating with their motto, “Cops Helping Kids,” PAL is a free, non-profit organization seeking to improve the quality of life for young people in Philadelphia, making the city a better place with a brighter future.
The Port Richmond Pal Center, located at 2524 East Clearfield St., is usually full of children playing various sports or games. The Rizzo PAL is named after former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, who rose through the Police Department ranks to become a celebrated commissioner before entering politics in the early 1970s.
The walls at Rizzo PAL are covered with shelves upon shelves of trophies, plaques and photos from past sporting events and other accomplishments.
The Rizzo PAL hosts several different outlets for the neighborhood children and their parents to take advantage of. For example, Rizzo PAL has yoga classes, basketball tournaments and other events along with the drug education program, Heads Up, for the young women of PAL. Heads Up lets the girls of Port Richmond know the dangers of drug and substance abuse.
PAL offers more than just prevention or education classes for the children of the area. It also offers them a scholarship program to steer the kids in the right direction.
PAL regularly holds homework clubs and book challenges to encourage kids to read and excel in school. It also takes children on field trips to area museums, haunted houses during Halloween, and major sporting events.
PAL’s scholarship programs award students grant money towards their higher education. The Police Athletic League of Philadelphia’s Scholarship Foundation awards $1,000 annual scholarships to college-bound worthy participants. According to its website, in June of 2007, a record number, 238 children received the $1,000 scholarship.
Police Officer Michael Faust, along with Offier Rehr, believes that the Philadelphia branches of PAL are in a league of their own.
“There are many PAL organizations around the country, but we are the best. When other cites start up Police Athletic Leagues, they come to the Philadelphia branches to help them get off the ground,” says Faust.
According to the U.S. Census, almost 10 percent of the population nearby the Rizzo PAL are five years of age or under with a total of 5, 539 children in that age bracket.
The Rizzo PAL has seen its share of changes for the better in recent days. A contracting firm donated its time, manpower and equipment for the renovation of this center’s upstairs gaming room, a new basketball gym with new floors and new lights. PAL’s facilities and halls were given fresh coats of royal blue paint.
“The facility was in need of some TLC,” said Officer Faust, pleased with the renovations.
In PAL’s recreation rooms, children can enjoy games of table tennis, foozeball, basketball, soccer or gymnastics.
For some people of Port Richmond, Rizzo Pal has been a place and an experience that has been passed down from generation to generation. Some people have gone to Rizzo PAL when they were children 30 years ago and now see their children take advantage of the program.
Visibly shaken, Kathleen Berry tells the story of her late daughter Karen, after yet another presentation of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Heads Up Program. Since its beginning in 2001, Kathleen Berry has volunteered as a speaker for the drug prevention program.
“I just want to educate the kids to make sure they never start using. Karen was a normal kid. She was just like every other kid. She was a cheerleader and she played soccer and softball and basketball, and I don’t know what happened,” says Kathleen. “She started using drugs, she started smoking weed when she was 12. And by the time she was 17, she was dead of an overdose.”
Karen overdosed on heroin in 1998.
“Karen was one of my athletes, so it holds a special place in my heart that Kathy is out here,” says Officer Ernie Rehr, who has spent 19 years as the Director of Rizzo PAL.
Kathleen Berry also works with MOMSTELL, an advocacy group working to create awareness about substance abuse through education and policy making. Many mothers of the organization share an unfortunately similar experience with Berry, having lost children to substance abuse.
Heads Up is an acronym for Heroin Education and Dangerous Substance Understanding Program. One of the locations it has touched is the Rizzo Police Athletic League in Port Richmond, where it speaks to the center’s young women during its Positive Images Program.
The program was started in 2001 at Cardinal Dougherty High School with a pool of roughly 1,000 kids. Over the years, Heads Up has traveled to five different states, reaching over 600,000 people in 600 different locations.
“We will continue to forge forward with the drug information, hoping that at least one kid gets it each time around,” says Officer Virginia Pagano, who works for Heads Up, as well as the Narcotics Bureau of the Philadelphia Police Department.
Heads Up has visited the Positive Images program for the young ladies at Rizzo PAL eight times.
Laura Kelly is program coordinator of Positive Images.
“In the movies, they glamorize teen drinking and doing drugs at their parties like it’s the thing to do. The Heads Up program shows girls the reality. This is what drugs do to you, not like [the TV show] “One Tree Hill” and having a great time partying, drinking, and everything is great. The end results could be death. That’s life,” says Kelly.
Patty-Pat Kozlowski, a local journalist for The Spirit, was so taken after covering the Positive Images program during a Heads Up visit she decided to volunteer at PAL
“I was sitting in the back row and I was blown away by because it was immediately after Karen Berry passed away and that news rocked the neighborhood. I was so overwhelmed I was almost crying because the program was so in-your-face.”
Kozlowski may have been affected, but the young girls in the audience were not nearly as such.
“I was really upset by how many girls just thought of it as an everyday thing and they weren’t upset. It was the way they reacted, they thought it was just the norm. I thought that shouldn’t be, for a 12, 13, 14 year old girl growing up in Port Richmond,” says Kozlowski.
The Positive Images Program offers more than just a drug prevention emphasis. The program has given the young women at Rizzo PAL a chance to meet different women of Philadelphia who have made a powerful impact on the city such as judges, lawyers, business women, female firefighters and, of course, police officers.
The girls have had the opportunity to participate in different events and classes, like scrap booking, dinner parties, sporting leagues, cleaning up public parks, viewing artwork or learning hip hop dance with Peter Sabasino, a contestant on the hit TV show “So You Think You Can Dance.”
Mother and daughter yoga instructors, Gina and Jessica Weiss, recently treated the young ladies of PAL to a night of yoga. “I came to teach a class at PAL tonight hoping I would be able to help young girls find better images of themselves and give them tools to be able to accomplish that. Learning how to calm their minds down through breathing more, just some simple, basic things that might help through life.
“At the first classes, they tell the children, ‘Welcome to Positive Images. You’re a PAL girl. Now act like one.’ And they do. And hopefully they’ll grow up and become a positive image for someone else,” said Patty-Pat Kozlowski.