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Helen Silvis of The Skanner News
Published: 02 July 2012

Youth get ready for a performance by the Up and
Over tour in the PAL youth center teen room.


The PAL Youth Center, at 424 N.E. 172nd Avenue at Glisan St., is a bright spot in East Multnomah County's struggling Rockwood neighborhood.

With free lunches, a large gym and an enthusiastic young staff group, the center has been attracting around 200 youth every day – including some of the city's poorest and most "at-risk." But with a dilapidated building, a tight budget and no extra money to feed the 50 or so teens who flock to evening basketball, PAL is scrambling to meet the need.

"The energy out here in the last few months has just gone through the roof," says Jay Williams, the rangy Portland State University graduate, who took the helm of the club last year.

"We have 185 kids who believe in everything we do, because they have a voice in everything we do."
These teens don't always feel safe in their neighborhoods, Williams says, but they can feel safe at PAL.
"Whatever they want to do, I will make it happen," says Williams. "That's what I am here for— to give these kids opportunities."

A former arena football player, Williams' can-do attitude and infectiously positive leadership have helped bring teens into the center for evening basketball and socialization. Some of the youth, such as Isaiah featured (at left) in the video above, already are parents themselves.
POIC gang outreach worker, Robert Blake, and IRCO gang outreach worker Valerie Salazar, are bringing teens off the streets into the center to offer support and point them to other crucial resources.
"Working with Jay (Williams) and being in the PAL building has been great," Blake told The Skanner News in February. "It's electric when you walk through these doors. It's positive, and that feeling is contagious."

The Rosewood Cafe is a hub for crime prevention efforts. Some of the younger neighborhood children, many who attend PAL youth center, showed off their dance skills at a spontaneous party June 29

Rockwood, (in Gresham) and its surrounding neighborhoods, is home to an influx of poor families; some gentrified out of the inner North and Northeast. Unemployment, and especially youth unemployment, is sky-high.
Blake points out that high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods are the perfect recruiting ground for gangs. Children whose families are struggling to pay the rent, and put food on the table , simply don't have warm, comfortable dens, where they can snack on milk and cookies while they finish their homework, watch television or play video games.
PAL is what gang prevention and intervention look like at the grass roots level.
Without PAL, Blake says, many more teens would be hanging around on street corners or jumping rides on the MAX, just to have a place to be and something to do.
"Some of these kids won't eat anything all day, except what they get to eat at PAL," Blake says.
By the time youth enter the club, he estimates, about 15 percent already see themselves as part of a gang.

Waiting for children to arrive at PAL's East Portland sports camp (from left): Keith Fisher of Multnomah County Sheriff's Office; Chris Kulp of Portland Police Youth Services Division; Hilary Scott from Portland's central precinct; and Walker Berg from Portland Youth Services Division.

PAL is short for Police Activities League, but the organization is a nonprofit, not part of the police bureau. Police officers visit the club, mentor youth and teach sports at its signature summer camps. They have also responded to the center when staff ask for extra support.  PAL's board of directors includes high-ranking police officers and representatives from the FBI and the ATF as well as from Comcast, Safeway, NIKE, the Portland Trailblazers and Standard Insurance.

To supplement the limited funds it gets from the City of Portland, Multnomah County, and the national office, PAL has to raise money privately.

The youth organization has a big footprint in the Portland-metro region. PAL runs youth football and basketball leagues, spring break and summer camps, and a four-week national sports camp at Portland State University that gives low-income youth the chance to try sports of all kinds. It also runs a Westside Youth Center on Allen Boulevard in Beaverton.
The contrast between the Beaverton and East Portland centers is startling. The Beaverton Center is a well-appointed facility with a good Internet connection and computers courtesy of partnerships with NIKE, Intel and IBM.

The Eastside Center is in desperate need of renovation. Leased to PAL by the City of Gresham for the nominal sum of $1 a year, it has a leaking roof, a peeling floor (rumored to contain asbestos), and other structural problems. Unlike the Beaverton center, its Internet connection and its three donated computers are unreliable. The teen room doesn't have Internet at the moment.

About 225 youth aged 8-14 attended the weeklong PAL multisports camp at the former Marshall High School. Police officers and volunteers taught all kinds of sports including: archery, cheer, basketball, football, martial
arts, soccer, fishing and volleyball.


Part of the reason for the difference is that the City of Beaverton owns and maintains the Beaverton Youth Center.
Patricia Day TenEyck, came to Greater Portland PAL as executive director 18 months ago. She had plenty of catch up to do.

The Portland Center now has workable plumbing and heating. Next in line is the gym floor, but the agency also has had to hire more staff to deal with the increased numbers of youth.

"This last year has been about dealing with the infrastructure of the organization," she said.

"Now I think we are in a very good place. The staff we have now is just awesome and dedicated and enthusiastic. They really care about the kids."

A former Peace Corps Volunteer, her office is adorned with a Malian mudcloth as well as photos of her own two boys. More recently she was executive director at Habitat for Humanity. For her work expanding that nonprofit's funding base, the Portland Business Journal named TenEyck, Nonprofit Woman Executive of the Year for 2010, 

Now she is working to build financial support for PAL's programs, and raise money to repair the East Portland Youth Center. The long-term goal is to raise upwards of $150,000 for renovations. In the short term, replacing the roof is the first priority. PAL has secured funding to do just that through a City of Gresham federal community development block grant.

TenEyck hopes that the work won't force the center to close.
"We were really reluctant to close down the center because there's nothing else out there for the kids," she says. "The area has been underserved for a long time."

Some of the PAL Youth Center staffers: front row from left, Mighty and Manzi; back row at right, Jay Williams

 Activities for Kids and Basketball for Teens
During the school year, parents drop students off year-round for after-school activities. The program includes tutoring and activities such as French, art, music, dance, cooking, math club, zumba and more.

An archery class, coached by police officers Hank Hays and Mike Brown, runs every Thursday followed by Chess for Success. This summer the youth center is offering a day camp Monday through Friday and the teen evening basketball, Thursday through Saturday.

Teens are asking Williams and his staff to hold more dances, talent shows and field trips. A visit by the Up and Over Tour performance group was a big hit, for example. "Mighty" one of the group's members is a PAL staffer. But events cost extra money, so the center has put them on hold.

At the East Portland Community Meeting against Youth Violence, community members stressed the need for evening activities for teens. Sandra Casilles, a parent trainer with the nonprofit Center for Family Success, said her wish list includes a youth center with facilities as good as the Boys and Girls Club in Northeast Portland.
"We really need to keep our youth busy with positive activities," she said.

But funding for PAL's evening hours ends with the summer. And TenEyck's more modest goal is to open on Saturdays.
"I'd love to be able to open all day Saturday year round," TenEyck said. "It comes down to funding for staff."

The East Portland Youth Center needs extensive renovation.

 With youth violence on the rise since 2008, and in an area with a rising youth population, the  center found itself on the front line of prevention services.

A Safe Place Where They can Just be Themselves
"Gang activity is up a lot in the city and we definitely think of the PAL Club and the late-night basketball program as something that is giving kids a safe place to be where they can just be themselves and they are not pressured or harassed to be in that lifestyle. So the more we can offer the better."

"Taking gang affected youth and helping them is very difficult for some organizations. We have expertise and staff who know how to help those youth."

TenEyck is also looking at partnerships with other agencies, including Portland Opportunities Industrial Center, which will open its new alternative high school at S.E. 183rd and Division Street this fall. A plan to work together on a youth employment program is in the works, TenEyck says.

Over time, the outreach workers and PAL staff build trusting relationships with youth. That relationship helps make sure youth have a place to get help when they need it. 

"They need adults they can count on, who are neutral, and that's what our staff is there for," TenEyck says.

POIC offered PAL $20,000 to help with renovations. But without the rest of the funds secured to complete the work by POIC's September deadline, PAL couldn't accept.

Girls watch balloons being released outside the PAL center

An Adult who Cares and Friends

A New York City study found that two factors protect young people from risky behaviors: having an adult who cares about them and being part of a youth group.  Teens find both these protections at the PAL club.
At PAL, they have a community of friends and adults who care about them. They can hang out in the games room, play basketball in the gym, read or watch a movie on Friday night.

PAL has plenty of rules that keep everyone safe. No gang attire. Be respectful to one another. Take turns in the games room.
Some are Hungry
In February, staff told The Skanner that it's PAL's two unwritten rules that may define its mission best:
No kid is ever turned away. No kid leaves hungry.
That first pledge is holding up this summer.
"One of the things PAL prides itself on is that we don't turn kids away," says TenEyck.
The second now looks less secure. PAL provides lunches through the Summer Food Program.  But teens are staying through the evening, and as any parent knows, they look for frequent feeding. Staff tried to fill that need.
"On Friday nights we buy at least 30 boxes of pizza and they are gone within 15 minutes," Williams said several weeks ago. "We buy birthday cakes and we have barbecues. So if you don't get to have a birthday at home, you get to have one at PAL."
But last week snacks and pizza were off the menu. The center just doesn't have the money to buy them.

From June 25, the PAL Portland Youth Center's Summer Hours are:
Monday – Wednesday: 10:00 am - 6:30 pm
Thursday and Friday: 10:00 am - 10:00 pm (After 7 pm 13 and up only)
Saturday Noon - 10:00 pm (After 7 pm 13 and up only)
Want to help PAL? Volunteers and donations are always welcome. Drop off donations at the center or at the PAL main office 449 N.E. Emerson St. Portland. 503-823-0250

Check out all the camps and activities PAL offers here.

Membership fees for the Youth Center are $50 for the School Year Program, and $50 for the Summer Program. Membership is $30 if the youth qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Payment plans and scholarships available.

"Are You Ready" Event

A community –wide event Aug. 4 will offer food, music, and resource workshops for East Portland residents. Learn how to access resources that improve your health, wellbeing and prosperity. Sponsored by The Skanner Foundation, Portland Parks, the East Portland Action Plan and Multnomah County, the second Are You Ready event will be held from 10 am to 3 pm, Saturday Aug. 4,  at Midland, Library, 805 S.E. 122nd Ave.    For more information call 503-285-5555 ext. 501

This article originally characterized Rockwood as being in East Portland. It is actually in Gresham bordered by East Portland's
Glenfair and Centennial neighborhoods.

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