If you turn on a television today, you’ll find countless politicians and pundits worried about the tension between at-risk youth and police officers in the United States.
Those concerns are not new. In 1914, New York City Police Commissioner Arthur Woods was concerned about the tension between disadvantaged youth and the police. He created a program that prohibited traffic on certain city blocks, turning them into safe playgrounds for kids.
The success of that movement led other police forces to follow suit in creating what eventually would come to be called a PAL, or Police Athletic League. The idea was to give kids something to do that would keep them from falling into crime and improve relations with the local police force.
Since then, PALs have sprung up all over the country, and the acronym has evolved to also mean Police Activities League. Most PALs still use sports to keep young people safe and entertained. But at the Beaufort County PAL, President Al Powell is turning the focus to STEM education.
Powell’s life has been anything but ordinary. “I grew up in the hood in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “So I have a background of being involved and being exposed to some pretty bad elements growing up in school.”
It was through a collegiate track scholarship that he was able to get an education, which allowed him to become a federal bank examiner. When he ended his career, he was working for the F.B.I. as chief of a counter-terrorism unit.
Now, the work he does for the BCPAL is motivated by what he learned over the years about crime, hate, and the human psyche.
“Kids are not born to hate,” he said. “That is an acquired trait that they are exposed to in their environment. We can keep smart kids from joining hate groups, terrorist groups, and committing criminal activity.”
Powell says the nonprofit’s flagship program is a summer course in boating and aviation that brings students through ground school and concludes with them flying a real plane and operating a sailboat. Along the way, kids learn about aerodynamics and the science of how those vehicles function.
Programs like those are made possible through grants and partnerships with organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club, Burroughs Wellcome, and even NASA. The funding has allowed Powell to purchase state-of-the-art equipment, including 3D printers, wind tunnels, and flight simulation equipment usually only seen in high-end flight school environments.
Even if the students don’t become pilots or STEM professionals, Powell hopes they will gain confidence from their time with the program and learn that there is value in education.