PORTLAND – With spring break just about two weeks away, Portland’s gang outreach workers are thinking about ways to keep kids busy, and safe.
The leaders of the Police Activities League announced they will stay open extra hours and take kids on field trips.
The group is dedicated to giving kids role models, and allowing them to get to know officers as regular people. And the impact can last a lifetime.
A converted grade school in east Portland provides a safe place to play basketball, for those who feel it’s too dangerous to use outdoor courts in their neighborhoods.
Tyler Fowlkes is a 14-year-old who doesn’t always feel safe near his school.
At HB Lee, it’s real ghetto at times,” he said. “There's always somebody trying to pick a fight with somebody. This is kind of a place you can come and escape all that."
An average of 150 kids gather go to the PAL facility each day it’s open, five days a week. And it only costs $30 a year.
More than half the kids are African-American and many—regardless of race—come from single-parent homes. Some have been going there a long time.
Lance Waddy first went there when he was just nine. Then he grew up, went to college and returned as part of the PAL staff.
The mission: Give the kids role models and authority figures, so they'll make the right choices in life.
Waddy said he knows the danger. He grew up with a single mom and gangs were everywhere.
“I grew up on 45 and Killingsworth, I went to Whitaker Middle School,” he said. “I was right in the midst of a lot of gang stuff, a lot of drugs, everything.”
Now he mentors young men like Tyler Fowlkes, who is being raised by only his mother.
“He’s kind of like a dad to me," Fowlkes.
Waddy understands. Since his boyhood, he's been mentored by a man named Vince Elmore. Elmore spent the last 22 years giving talks at PAL and befriending kids who needed a strong role model.
“Do not let your beginning dictate where you are going," he tells the kids.
He's more than just a powerful speaker. He's a lieutenant in the Portland Police Bureau.
“I will help any of you with jobs or anything you want to do,” he told a crowd at PAL. “But you have to understand you have to work for that, okay? I'll help any of you."
That’s part of the magic - kids get to know cops as regular people, and the cops form a connection with some kids that last a lifetime.
That’s what likely kept Lance Waddy out of gangs.
“He never let me go. He never gave me the opportunity to run wild,” Waddy said of Elmore. “Before that happened I would see him doing cop stuff and he'd be like, ‘What are you doing on this side of town?’ And I'm on my way back home in the back seat of a cop car."
In a world where growing up brings challenges for even the most stable families, the PAL program in east Portland is an oasis of safety and mentorship for the children who need it the most.
And the program has room for more kids, and more volunteers.