The word “mentor” holds a special meaning. Usually, this term of endearment is given to an elder from someone younger after a series of memories where wisdom and guidance are shared. Many times, it takes years of experience to earn that precious title.
Jayquan Myers, Alejandro Miranda and William Przybylski are currently only middle schoolers, approaching their adolescence. But after sticking with the Police Athletic League (PAL) for the past few years, all of them consider themselves to be mentors to their peers, in PAL, in school and in their lives.
“I feel like I’ve been here long enough to know the experience,” said Miranda. “That also helped me become a leader to the kids who are new… They might by shy because of the police officers. But, I feel like when I help the kids, they become more comfortable with them.”
From the current Derek Chauvin trial in Minnesota to Black Lives Matter to last year’s local riot last May, the country seems to be choosing sides between police and the citizens they have sworn to protect. PAL coordinator Sgt. Tom Lenox does not hide this from the children.
“People say that all police officers are bad,” Lenox lectures to the students. “All police officers want to do harm. You guys are living proof that that’s not the truth. We expect you to step up and say, ‘Yes, there may be some bad police officers, but most of them are good.'”
In five short years, the attendance for PAL has gone from a few kids from one school to hundreds from all over Erie. The word-of-mouth from child to child has led to many trying it for a day and never leaving.
“I came in, not knowing what to expect, so I was just going to ride with it,” Przybylski said. “Instead of sitting on the couch, eating my chips and watching TV, I actually wanted to come back and play sports and do these fun activities with the officers.”
For Myers, his passion for PAL permeates in his every move. He listens intently whenever an officer is speaking. He constantly builds up his teammates for the activity. His eyes focus on the task at-hand with a seriousness not seen in many 13-year-olds.
“You got to become a leader to earn your way to a mentor,” said Myers. “Helping other people if they’re trying to do something bad… Someone was doing something they wasn’t supposed to be doing in the gym. So, I said, ‘Hey, you wasn’t supposed to be doing this and that, and come over and take a knee.’ And they just came over and starting listening to the officers.”
Myers’ pride in that memory forces a rare smile.
Lenox is proud of the fact that the officers, many of whom he personally recruited, are not the only ones teaching in this program. The students offer learning experiences for the ones in charge, too. And that symbiotic relationship has already made an impact in the community.
“We get called for an active domestic,” recalls patrolman Matthew Valloud. “We get to the house, the mother and father are pretty hysterical. [We’re] trying to calm everyone down. A PAL kid opens the door and yells, ‘Officer Matt! Officer Matt!’ and gives me a hug. And that defuses the situation. I felt like there was a trust there.”
That trust has led to many similar scenarios, according to Lenox. In one instance, he said in the days after the riots that damaged downtown Erie, many officers involved in PAL wanted to stop because they feared all of their hard work was for nothing. But that wasn’t the case. PAL parents were calling the PAL officers to make sure they were okay afterward.
“The families are getting behind [the program],” Lenox said. “We’ve got to continue to have these honest conversations. And we’re not going to stop, and we’re not going to let what the country, or our city, at times, deems as a major incident that’s going to disrupt the relationships that we’re having with the kids in our community and their families.”