Former Henrico PAL participant now serves as program counselor
In only eight years of existence, Henrico Police Athletic League (PAL) has grown from a single, small after-school program to a series of sports camps, summer camps, recreational and after-school programs serving several hundred children each year.
Four years ago, Henrico PAL also won national recognition as Aubrey Temple of the Youth Leadership Council and board member Johnny Newman were honored as "Male Youth of the Year" and "Male Volunteer of the Year" at the national conference.
But as proud as PAL staff members and supporters are of the organization's growth and national reputation, they are quick to point out that success at PAL is measured not simply by awards or numbers served, but by fulfilling the mission: helping young children grow into successful adults as they build positive relationships with law enforcement officers.
And no one can speak to that success as well as TyVaughn Eldridge, Henrico PAL's first "alumnus" to return as a summer camp counselor.
Now a junior at Old Dominion University, Eldridge got his introduction to PAL as a 12-year-old attending the first summer camp in 2008.
"My mom signed me up because I loved sports, and I needed somewhere to go for the summer while she was at work," he recalls.
After that first summer experience, Eldridge and his mother were both sold on the organization. Among his favorite memories are the Monday afternoons sessions known as “PAL around,” when children in the camp got to choose the activity. "Most of the time, of course, we picked Kings Dominion," he says, "and had a blast."
He also reaped long-term athletic benefits, Eldridge adds, such as the opportunity to improve his skills in a favorite sport. "Growing up, I wasn’t the best baseball player," he says, "but I loved the game." After attending a Tuckahoe Little League baseball clinic with PAL, Eldridge remembers becoming a much better player, and eventually went on to play in high school.
"I credit PAL," he says, "for giving me the opportunity to learn more about the game that other programs didn’t give me."
But when he looks back at his years with PAL, Eldridge says the best part of all was the friendships he built at the camps. "Back then," he says, "I never would have known that I would still have a close relationship with several of the other campers."
As a retired Henrico police officer and now the executive director of Henrico PAL, Kenneth Ragland has watched Eldridge grow up in the program and acquire skills that go far beyond athletic ability.
"It was very apparent early on," Ragland says, "that TyVaughn was a youth with unlimited potential who would flourish in PAL [and benefit from] the positive role models in the program."
With his well-mannered ways and quiet leadership, Ragland says, as well as his academic achievements and willingness to help others, Eldridge was an easy pick for the first Henrico PAL Youth of the Year award in 2009. Eldridge went to join PAL's fledgling Youth Leadership Council and serve as its first sergeant at arms.
In addition, Ragland points out, Eldridge took the initiative "immediately upon aging out of summer camp" and asked to volunteer as a youth counselor.
As a full-time camp counselor this summer, Eldridge did not get to play the way he once did as a 12-year-old. But he contends that he had plenty of fun just the same – and enjoyed rewards that he never experienced as a camper.
"PAL does a great job scheduling trips that kids will not only have fun with, but also learn from," Eldridge says. "I love being able to watch kids have fun while also learning how to become young adults."
It was a rare day when he was tired or unexcited about the job, says Eldridge -- and only because he'd spent long hours in the summer sun with an energetic group of youngsters.
He always has energy, however, for his favorite annual field trip to Water Country USA.
"I love it because I love being in water," Eldridge says. "But best of all, PAL gives everyone food tickets – and the food there is awesome."
‘PAL got through to me’
Having volunteered over several years, Eldridge also says he has discovered the joy of watching his young charges change over time – such as two campers he noticed this summer who started in the program as youngsters. "It amazes me," he says, "how much they’ve grown and matured so fast throughout the years."
Among other rewards of being a counselor, he says, are the words of encouragement he gets from his PAL mentors such as Ragland and Officer Michelle Sheehan and the occasional positive feedback from an appreciative parent.
What's more, Eldridge says, PAL has had an influence in his choice of major: criminal justice.
"Growing up," he says, "I always thought it was best for me to stay as far away from police officers as possible – because I figured if you were talking to one, you most likely were in trouble for something.
"However, the PAL program taught me that wasn’t always the case."
Ragland had a similar experience to Eldridge's as a youngster, coming from a single-parent home and benefiting from having police officers as mentors. So it doesn't surprise him that PAL has sparked Eldridge's interest in a related career choice – or that Eldridge has excelled as he travels the path to that career.
"I can’t say enough about TyVaughn," Ragland says. "He is a byproduct of what the Henrico Police Athletic League is all about."
"I wouldn’t trade my experiences with PAL for any other organization," echoes Eldridge. "Everyone knows the mission of PAL is to establish relationships with police officers and youth.
"And I must definitely say that mission got through to me."
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