The Afterschool Alliance is pleased to present this post as part of the Afterschool & Law Enforcement blog series.
22 years ago, in the back seat of a police car, an organization that would significantly reduce the juvenile crime rate in Dunn, North Carolina was born. A few officers perceived the need for a community policing initiative and sought a way to connect positively with youth in their area. In 1995, the Dunn Police Athletic and Activities League began offering a few sports programs and a handful of volunteers serving 10 children.
Today, Dunn PAL serves about 400 K-12 children per year in their afterschool program, mentoring program, and sports program. Dunn PAL is a Non-Profit 501(C)(3) organization under the Dunn Police Department that works to establish mutual trust between law enforcement, citizens, and youth.
I had the opportunity to interview Lieutenant Rodney Rowland, the Executive Director, and Stephanie Coxum, the Enrichment Instructor, about their program and their Lights On Afterschool event.
Both Lt. Rowland and Ms. Coxum emphasized the relationship-building that occurs between law enforcement and children. When kids see law enforcement officers on the street they are more likely to say “hey, what’s up” than to run away in fear. And when law enforcement see children in precarious situations, they have the clout with them to have a conversation about their behavior and encourage children to think critically about their choices.
“We are unique because we actually have police officers in the city directly involved in the lives of kids, which directly affects their parents, their families, and the community as a whole. And in such a positive way,” Lt. Rowland explained.
Keeping the Lights On Afterschool
Bouncy houses. Free food. Free school supplies! What more could you want at a Lights On/Back to School Bash event?
Dunn PAL held their Lights On event on August 12. With the help of local businesses and law enforcement, the programs set up booths inside the school gym with free school supplies for students in need. They gave away more than 200 book bags while also promoting Lights On and the importance of afterschool programs. The room was filled with paintings depicting anti-bullying messages that were given out to community members at the end of the event.
The event was free and open to everyone in the community (even people from neighboring communities came by), with a total of almost 500 people coming for the event. The event was wildly successful and Ms. Coxum hopes to replicate it next year.
Dunn PAL has enjoyed 22 years of continuous operation since its inception. When asked for advice about facilitating successful law enforcement/youth partnerships, this is what Lt. Rowland and Ms. Coxum say:
Community involvement is essential. If you are starting a program, you must get buy-in from the community members and from law enforcement; luckily, buy-in from one side will influence the other. Citizens should be the tip of the spear in putting the board together, encouraging the police department to get involved, and getting the business community involved. “It’s all about buy-in from the community and then it’s easy since police are part of the community,” said Lt. Rowland.
Start small and build momentum. Making a difference to ten children is the first step towards making a difference to 400 kids! Take the time to perfect your model on at the micro-level before scaling up.
The staff at Dunn PAL attributes their continued growth partially to their mentoring program, claiming it has been one of the most successful elements of their outreach. They bring in volunteers to mentor two or three children. The mentors build relationships with those few children and then become more involved in the program as a whole. Ms. Coxum explained, “They get drawn into the program and they don’t just end up touching the lives of two or three kids, they end up touching the lives of three or four hundred.”
Ms. Coxum shared a story about a police officer who joined Dunn PAL as a wrestling coach, and subsequently became more and more involved in the community, volunteering with the Parks and Rec Department and other organizations. He has built strong relationships with all the students he coaches and these relationships extend beyond just program time.
Lt. Rowland himself has been deeply impacted by his involvement at Dunn PAL. Kids on the basketball team he coaches call him “pops,” and every Thursday he goes to the school to eat lunch with his team. After students leave the program, they maintain their relationship with him through Facebook and phone calls.
“He’s not just a basketball coach, he’s not just the director of Dunn PAL, he’s not just law enforcement, he’s their friend,” Ms. Coxum exclaimed. If that doesn’t prove that these programs work, I don’t know what does.