by Dennis Dalman
Local children have no excuse to be bored this summer – at least not on Tuesday and Thursday evenings when the Sartell Police Department hosts its Police Activities League.
PAL, as it’s commonly known, is now celebrating its 20th year. For most of those years, it has taken place in East Sartell’s Val Smith Park. The free program is held every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the summer months from 6:30-8 p.m., with this season’s first PAL event set to begin June 11 with a free family picnic to start at 7:30 p.m. The last session will be July 25, an annual time of celebration with staff, children and parents, who all enjoy a big picnic in the park.
PAL includes both physical activities and artistic projects, and all students ages 5 to 15 can freely choose what they want to do. Art activities were added some years ago when the local program’s founder, police officer Dan Whitson, along with parents and children, realized not all children enjoy sports-type activities. About one-half of all participants now enjoy the art activities, which include painting, clay, sculpture and other hands-on arts taught by art teachers and assistants.
Although the age range for participants is 5 to 15, no child will be turned away, no matter what the age, Whitson noted.
The physical activities include dodge ball, floor hockey, water games, kickball, basketball, volleyball and many varieties of games of tag. After each PAL evening, all children receive some kind of treat, such as ice cream or candy.
PAL is almost never cancelled, rain or shine. The shelter at Val Smith Park allows students to do projects even if the rain starts falling. PAL has had to cancel only three meetings in 20 years because of threatening storm weather.
About 150 children come to one or more PAL programs, and 80 percent of those live in Sartell, Whitson noted. Some area cities that used to have PAL programs no longer do, including Sauk Rapids, Waite Park and St. Cloud. The Sartell program is open to all children in the greater St. Cloud area. Kids come from as far away as St. Joseph and Rice. Children who attend at least five PAL events receive a free PAL T-shirt.
Parents or guardians are welcome to stay for the PAL evenings. Some parents like to bring books to read while their children have fun.
While some cities cut PAL programs due to budget restraints, Sartell has always valued the importance of the program, and people have generously donated to its success. PAL in Sartell costs about $5,500 each year to operate. Donations of food and T-shirt expenses are donated by generous companies. For example, Array Services of Sartell recently contributed $1,000 to purchase PAL T-shirts.
In 1992, when Officer Whitson started the Drug Awareness and Resistance Education program in Sartell schools, he began to consider doing a summer program for youth. After researching that topic, he learned of PAL programs and started one.
Two officers have been central to the success of Sartell PAL for years – Whitson and Officer Adam Vande Vrede, who are both school-resource officers for the Sartell-St. Stephen School District. One of those two officers is always present at a PAL get-together, along with one other police officer – usually a different one each time. Two reserve officers also help out, as well as five paid part-time staff ages 17-18 who are former Pal participants. Sartell-St. Stephen Community Education, which has always been a huge help for PAL, also provides four staff members for each PAL event.
Whitson is happy about how the PAL program is becoming so “generational.” For example, a former PAL participant from Sartell is Mary Bentley, who teaches art in Foley and who now helps teach PAL students during their art sessions. Bentley was a member of Sartell pal when she was in sixth grade.
“It really is a generational thing,” Whitson said. “A lot of former PAL members are now helping out. It’s really a good community program because kids get so excited about it. Relationships are built for kids in the park to do activities with police. We also establish relationships with the parents who want us to be part of their kids’ lives. And many of the children who come to PAL Adam (Vande Vrede) and I know from working with them in the schools.”
Another advantage to PAL, Whitson said, is children’s play is safe because there is plenty of adult and police supervision.”
PAL is a real lifeline for children, especially those who come from financially-strapped families, Whitson noted. The program is totally free, and many children from low-income families have no structured summer activities to enjoy.
Whitson said PAL would not be possible without the support of the City of Sartell and so many others – individuals and businesses.
“Businesses are so good at helping out,” he said.
Any child who wants to participate in PAL can just show up at any PAL event, although it’s recommended, if possible, children and parents or guardians should attend the June 11 meeting to sign up at 6:30 p.m.