The following is a conversation between Fred Watts, Executive Director of Police Athletic League of New York, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: The Police Athletic League, together with the NYPD and the law enforcement community, supports and inspires New York City youths to realize their full individual potential as productive members of society. Their motto? The best friend a kid can have. And with us tonight is one of those friends. He is Fred Watts, the Executive Director of the Police Athletic League of New York.
Good evening, Fred, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Fred: Thank you very much for having me.
Denver: You know, the organization has been around for over a hundred years. Tell us how it got started, Fred, and some of the history of the organization.
Fred: Way back in 1914, the police department saw a number of youths in New York City and said, “These kids don’t have much to do, and if they aren’t doing much, trouble is going to ensue.” And so, they started to engage the youth in recreational activities. This actually was the birth of one of our signature programs, PLAYSTREETS. The police cleared out some empty lots on the Lower East Side and basically invited the kids for a drop-in recreation program. And that was the start, back in 1914, for PAL. If you race up over a hundred years, we do PLAYSTREETS today with the NYPD and our staff. So that’s how we started, and we’re still true to our origin.
Denver: Your roots. Absolutely.
Tell us a little bit about playstreets today because you don’t close streets down quite the same way. It’s evolved over those 160 years.
Fred: Over the hundred-plus years, I think some of the complexities and the density of the city makes that difficult, although we do close a few where the community is sufficiently engaged with us and the NYPD to clear out cars and to operate the playstreet. But for the most part, we’re in parks, NYCHA facilities, public housing. We’ll have parks in empty areas.
What we do is we…essentially, it becomes a drop-in summer camp. It’s 100% free. We bring staff. We bring equipment – whether it’s basketball hoop, volleyball, board games – and we also engage the police. And then together, the kids drop in and they can spend a summer day on the street, free of charge.
The adults in the community sort of also own that playstreet because it’s their playstreet and a place for their kids to go.
Denver: That’s fantastic.
I’ve known a couple of people who were a part of those playstreets way back when, and it really gave them a sense of ownership of the street. There was a sense that “This is mine.” And that was really, psychologically, pretty important.
Fred: I think it’s important for the kids and it’s important, I think, for the families because the family can say, “I’ve got a 9-year-old and he’s stuck in the apartment,” or maybe “We don’t have quite the funds to send him to a summer camp,” or “We’re going down south in a couple of weeks, but for the next two weeks it’d be great if you had something.” The adults in the community sort of also own that playstreet because it’s their playstreet and a place for their kids to go.
We’re also very proud that in the evaluations we’ve done, 100% of our children have been evaluated as ready for kindergarten… Being ready for kindergarten in the current world is meaningful, and if you’re coming from a difficult environment, it’s more meaningful.
Denver: I think when a lot of people think of the Police Athletic League, they think of youth, maybe about 9-years-old, and do not think of really, really young youth. But you do have an early childhood education program. What’s that like?
Fred: That’s right. We actually have “PAL Kids” as we typically call our participants. We start at the age of 2, and we have been running an early childhood program, often in conjunction with the federal Head Start program and with city programs. Recently, we are very proud that we were selected by the federal government to run our – when I say our, they’re our funder in partnership with the Head Start program – but we run our own. So PAL is the direct beneficiary of the federal government to run our own Head Start program.
We’re in seven places in Brooklyn and Queens, mostly underserved communities. We have about 600 kids. And I have to tell you, the experience that I’ve had is you go to visit the program – let’s say it’s 100 kids in a center – when you get there, the neighborhoods can be rough, a little struggling. You walk into the Center, the kids are…their faces are bright; the place is immaculate. We have a woman-doctor, Asneth Council, who does a phenomenal job in running these programs. And so, we’re really very proud of our early childhood program.
So those kids go from age 2 up to kindergarten. We’re also very proud that in the evaluations we’ve done, 100% of our children have been evaluated as ready for kindergarten. In my day, being ready for kindergarten didn’t mean that much, quite frankly. But I’m the father of two kids and being ready for kindergarten in the current world is meaningful, and if you’re coming from a difficult environment, it’s more meaningful. So we’ve very proud of that.
Denver: No doubt about it. You can sometimes never catch up if you’re not ready for kindergarten, so you’ve really got to make sure you’re at least at the starting line, if not even a little bit beyond it, when the kindergarten bell rings.
Well, they get a little bit older, and then they go into the Junior Police program. Now tell us about that.
Fred: We have a full afterschool program, all five boroughs, where kids come pretty much directly from school to engage in a variety of activities: academic, performing arts, sports. But, of course, again, one of the key programs that we do – because part of our mission is to bring the police and community together – is we have this Junior Police program.
What essentially that is is we tend to try to start them young, so they’re more like third-, fourth grade, and they get little t-shirts. But a police officer will come a couple of times a week and talk to them about certain things going on in their community. They’ll go on trips, often law enforcement-related. They’ll go to the precinct. They’ll learn about various aspects of policing. They’ll do drills. They learn how to march.
And I have to tell you, when you see these kids…they have a little culminating program at the end of the year, and often, high-ranking police officers come, and they sort of do their thing, if you will. Not only are the Junior Police very excited for what they’ve accomplished, but the kids that aren’t in the program sometimes are in the audience… they want to know how they can do it next year.
Denver: That’s great.
Fred: And again, it comes to the key that we want to bring the police…the police have a difficult job. The community has, at times, can have complaints about the police… some of them are justified. But if you can bring them together in this, especially at a young age, you can really sort of bring that police and community, make that relationship better.
Denver: Yes. It’s nice to get them together in a positive environment as opposed to perhaps on the street in something which is not quite as positive. One of my favorites, and this is again for even older kids, is Police Commissioner for a Day.
Fred: Yes, and it goes back many decades. I want to say as far back as the ‘40s, 1940s. What we do, and again, the relationship…PAL has a lot of educators in youth development. That’s their job; that’s what they want to do. The police obviously have a law enforcement job, but it’s great when we can work together.
So, what we do is our education team will create some essay questions, and we usually try to pick something that relates to either a problem or an issue in their community. It could be cyberbullying, or it could be violence in schools—
Denver: Opioid crisis was a couple of years ago, as I remember.
Fred: — Exactly, yes. That’s very good – and we then work with the police to create this essay question. Then we send the essay question out to high schools throughout the city. The kids write an essay… I think it’s typically about a thousand words, so that’s three or four typed pages. And they’re judged by our staff and the police of what we think the best essay is. And I’ve sort of buried the lead here. The question always focuses on: What would you do if you were in charge of the police department for a day to correct the problem that we’ve issued? And I must say, you get some tremendous answers in those essays. We get maybe somewhere between 500 and 1,000 essays. I don’t sift through all of those, but they usually show me the finalists, and then, together with the police department, we pick the winner.
But the great part about it is: of the hundreds of kids who enter, probably over a hundred, participate in some way in this culminating event, which is held at One Police Plaza. It’s hosted by the police commissioner. The winners – the top 100 – get assigned to ranking members of the police department, and they spend the day with them.
Fred: The true winner – the top winner – actually spends the day with the police commissioner. They go out to lunch and… so it’s really a wonderful…it’s educational. It’s a community-police merging. At the culminating event, the teachers come, the parents come. So, it’s really a very warm, exciting time.
Denver: Have any of those ideas ever been implemented or used by the police department?
Fred: You know? I have seen a couple that look strangely similar to a couple of suggestions.
Denver: Well, they’re going to have some insights that adults probably don’t have… They’re at that age…
Fred: I must say one of the ones that sticks in my mind now had to do with cyberbullying, which again, is sort of a difficult thing to ask the police department. I mean, they might be involved, but some of this is more of dealing with children’s behaviors. But the insight that the child had – I had a sense of that writer’s fears and concerns that I didn’t have before I read them. So I do think that they…
And I should also emphasize that – I can’t remember the year. I should know this – but a person entered that contest, I want to say it was in the 1940s, who ultimately became the police commissioner, Ben Ward. So Benjamin Ward, who was the police commissioner in the 1980s, he entered and won the Police Commissioner for a Day contest.
Denver: So he had to do that lunch a couple of times– as a winner and then as the police commissioner.
Fred: That’s exactly right. He’s the only host that was also a guest.
Denver: Talk a little bit about the summertime. You talked about PLAYSTREETS and going to the neighborhood, but do you have any fixed summer camps where kids come?
Fred: We do. Last summer, I believe we had 19 locations. Our centers could generally be divided into two types. We have seven PAL centers where everything that goes on there, by and large, is PAL. It’s sort of our space. But the other, probably about a dozen, are co-located either in schools or in NYCHA facilities. They have certain names. So, when you put those all together, we run summer camps out of all of them – out of the NYCHA facility, out of the schools, and out of our own PAL centers.
They are full programs. They’re difficult to staff because they start at 8:00; kids get breakfast, they stay all day. I think the checkout is somewhere between 5:00 and 6:00. So it’s a real full day. And of course, it’s the summertime, and they’re young kids. Most of the kids are from some middle schools, but mostly elementary school, so you’re talking from 6 to 12. They want to get outside and, of course, we’re inside. So we do have a lot of…we try to incorporate local trips. If the center is near a park, we spend some time out there. So it really is a fun experience in the sense that the kids do come inside; they do get some order, but they also get some good old summer fun.
What that does is the kids enjoy the activity for that summer, but then that event, they really are engaging their minds. They’re writing something; they’re working on something.
Denver: And you also try to prevent a little bit of that summer learning loss.
Fred: We try. And even though I consider myself in advanced years, I vividly remember what it was like to be a kid; most of us do. And you think that “I don’t really want to do schoolwork in the summer.” What we do try to do is keep them sort of just intellectually engaged.
We have this great culminating event at the end of the summer called “Culture Day” where the kids work on throughout the summer, they pick typically it’s a region of the world or a country, and there’ll be a topic, whether it’s music or something about a food of that country. And then at the end of the year, the kids show their banners and their art.
What that does is the kids enjoy the activity throughout the summer, but then that event, they really are engaging their minds. They’re writing something; they’re working on something. And our hope really is that with activities like that, that we can keep the kids engaged so that when they go from fourth grade to fifth grade, they’re sort of starting running.
Denver: Right. Just keep them in touch.
Fred: Keep them in touch.
Denver: Let’s talk a little bit about the police officers. How are they engaged? How many of them participate? Do they do this either on volunteer time, their own time, or is it on work time? How does it go?
Fred: I’ve been the executive director a little over five years, and it’s changed a little even from the time I started. They have a unit, a community affairs unit. They have a youth strategies part of the police department, and we engage those officers. That’s sort of part of their job. But most of our activities with the police were sort of voluntary, or if the cops had a little extra time on the shift, they’d stop by.
The great advantage of the last several years of crime reduction and the police becoming increasingly community-focused is that it’s easier to engage more officers. There are more touchpoints with kids. For example, we have an organized sports programs called Cops and Kids Sports Programs. And those require designated people to coach the kids or play with the kids. Those are sort of organized in a certain way, but we can organize them almost as part of their job.
So, to answer your question: It’s a hybrid of volunteers, but also, because of the police’s focus on youth and community interaction, they are willing to have as part of the police officer’s shift at a given time to come to a center or to engage with the kids in a certain way. So, it gives us more touch points with the police, which is good.
Denver: The interesting thing about that, too, is that’s really a reflection of the larger society because if you look at a lot of corporations where they used to have volunteer programs, now, particularly among millennials and Gen Z-ers, they expect this to be done on company time. So it kind of goes across the board in terms of the way we are engaging people.
Fred: Yes. I think that’s right.
Denver: How many children participate on an annual basis in all your PAL programs?
Fred: We have typically in all the programs…last year, it was 20,000. So we have a good little number, and we’re in all five boroughs, so we’ve got a pretty broad reach.
Denver: Have you been able to measure, Fred, the impact that this has on the young people and in the community?
Fred: We have struggled with getting the best numbers because part of it is…well, I shouldn’t give the excuse. Let me tell you what we have been able to do.
We often survey our participants – them in some instance… parents and police officers, staff – as to what we think we got out of the program, and we’ve gotten some very strong numbers in what children get out of the program. So, for example, we survey children and ask them their attitudes toward police before and after. The improvement in their attitude is like 95% to 100%. We ask the same question of the cops – 100%. So it’s an interesting… When we survey, we get information like increased self-esteem, increased confidence, speaking skills, all these super important skills for success.
The area we’ve struggled, I think, is the more hard-boiled because we also would like to see if they would do better in school – attendance. We can get information from self-reported. We want to be their mentors and their…not guardians, but sort of people they look up to. We kind of don’t want to push too hard on getting grades, and sometimes parents are a little reluctant for that. So we enter that a little more gently, so we don’t have quite the hard data that we see.
One really spectacular piece of data that we have, or two I’ll point out. One is we have a Juvenile Justice Program where the kids…it’s been expanded to really involve all kids which are really at-risk – maybe they might be in foster care or homeless – but when the program started, its core was children who had been what we call “court-involved,” that had been arrested for some event, often not super serious, but something that needed to be checked. Those kids are in family court. They’re put on probation, and as a condition of their probation, they have to participate with the program. And I think in 2019, 96% of the kids that went successfully completed probation, which was significantly more than kids who didn’t. So that’s a hard statistic, and roughly half of those kids ultimately participate in other PAL activities. So that was good.
The second thing is we have a College Access Program, which we’re trying to grow. We have about a hundred kids in it now, but we’re trying to really grow it. Those are high school juniors and seniors that come with an aspiration to go to college. In 2019, 100% of those kids enrolled in college. We don’t cherry-pick these kids. If you want to come, you can come, but you then have to participate vigorously. We take them on college trips. We have speakers. We get them tutors. And so that’s been really successful, and we just hope that we can do a lot more with that.
Denver: Well, get some more money and grow it!
You know, we’ve talked about the cops. We’ve talked about the kids. What about volunteers? Do you use volunteers in any capacity? And if so, what duties do they take on?
Fred: We do use volunteers. I guess the volunteers, I would put them in two categories. One is sort of corporations who look for opportunities, as you sort of alluded to earlier, for their staff, their employees to participate in some community. And so those volunteers are tailor-made for larger events, often in the summer. We have a carnival at Staten Island, 500 kids, and you’ve got to man 30 booths and face painting… so the volunteers basically help us run a lot of our larger events, often in the summer, but throughout the year. They also help us…we do a big holiday party – 500 kids – and in that holiday party, the set-up for the holiday party and putting together of the hundred bicycles that are given away. There’s a lot of hard work there. Our volunteers work on that. So, they tend to do the big events.
The second part is sort of the community person who – my mother used to do this – just want to come to read to a local—
Denver: Your dad was a police officer, too.
Fred: My father was a police officer. My mother was a teacher. So, it’s probably not too surprising that I am where I am.
So we try to engage either retirees, local community people who just want to interact with children. We have rigorous screenings for those folks, but that’s how we do it.
Denver: How is the organization funded? Does the City of New York provide any of it? And what’s your private fundraising like?
Fred: We have significant government funds: federal government for the Head Start; city funds help us with a lot of afterschool programs. But we spend a lot of time doing private fundraising. I think we’ve been pretty successful, but our desires are greater than our funds, so we keep at it hoping to grow those private funds.
Denver: I’m sure that’s almost your number one job – going out there, knocking on doors, and asking for money.
Fred: Yes. We spend a lot of time doing that.
Denver: Well, let’s close with a couple of things along those lines. You have a few events coming up in the next couple months, and one is the Legal Profession Luncheon, which is going to be held at The Pierre Hotel on April 22. And at that, The Robert Morgenthau Award is given. Tell us the relationship that PAL has had with him.
Fred: Mr. Morganthau, who passed away in July of 2019 at the age of 99 – he was just shy of his 100th birthday – he had been the president or chairman of the Police Athletic League since 1963, so we’re talking breaking all records. He was a very well-respected lawyer and public servant, but he gave his heart and soul to PAL. In fact, our vice-chairman said that he was the heart and soul of PAL. He had this really deep relationship as a leader, as a fundraiser, but really, it’s – I don’t want to overstate – it was almost spiritual just because he cared so much, and it trickled down to the board, and it has certainly trickled down to all of us.
Now, it happens that I started my legal career working for Mr. Morgenthau. When you’re a young employee – I worked for the Manhattan DA’s office – you don’t have much interaction with him. But over time, because I had worked there a long time, I got to know him. So, he’s a tremendous sort of standard-bearer in the legal community and in the not-for-profit, youth development community.
So, this award that was developed in honor of him is a special award. In fact, this luncheon focuses on the legal community; obviously, I go to it each year. And you can tell…we honor some very spectacular lawyers, but they are proud to get that Robert M. Morgenthau Award. So it’s nice that even after his passing, he’s still contributing to PAL by stimulating, by keeping this luncheon going, and we’ve got partners from big law firms that want to be a part of it, and a lot of it has to do with him.
Denver: That’s a nice legacy. Big shoes to fill, that’s for sure.
Denver: And finally, the second one, and I just got an email on this the other day, is the PAL 5k. It’s coming back on May 17. Where’s that going to be?
Fred: Yes. We’re going to be in Prospect Park. We made a little change. For the first four years, we did it in Riverside Park – we do it with other nonprofits – but that was always in November. And it seemed like each November, it was a little colder than the November before. The one in Prospect Park is in May. So we decided that we would skip last November and try a warmer clime.
But it’s really a lot of fun because what it does is: it allows the staff’s passion for the kids for them to fundraise among their friends. It allows people like me to ask people for money and our friends. But it also gets us…last year, we were particularly proud. We had a handful of teenagers, and they participated. When I email my friends and ask them to donate, sponsor me for my 5k – some do, some don’t. But if you ask them to sponsor a teen, they’ll do it. Show them pictures of the teen, “I’ll give it to him.” So it’s helpful, and it’s also great to have the youth participating, not only in their activity, but actually helping the larger organization.
Denver: Sounds fantastic. Well, Fred Watts, the Executive Director of the Police Athletic League of New York, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website and how people can help, and maybe even sign up for this race if they should be so inspired to do so.
Fred: Well, you can learn basically everything you need to know if you go to palnyc.org. Google that; you’ll go right to the website, and there are all sorts of information about what we do, how you can support us and our events, which would include the 5k.
Denver: Well, thanks, Fred. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Fred: Well, thank you very much for having me.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.