You’ve got a PAL

Henrico Police Officer Michelle Sheehan high-fives a PAL student who received a new bike in December.
While the school bell signals the end of the day for most students and staff in Henrico public schools, for Officer Michelle Sheehan, who works as a school resource officer, it signals the start of the second part of her day as police liaison and program director for the Henrico Police Athletic League’s after-school program.

Sheehan is only one of many officers who work with Henrico PAL, a program started 10 years ago by Henrico police officers that is designed to develop positive relationships with Henrico’s youth through after-school mentoring, structured recreation and summer programs.

“After all of us have been at our school pretty much all day – we’ve done nine hours there – we go to PAL, and I think at the end you see the reward and the value in the relationships you build,” Sheehan said.

Youngsters participating in Henrico PAL’s after-school programs receive at least one hour of schoolwork mentoring and then participate in structured recreational programs, which range from art programs to sports programs, such as basketball and flag football. Henrico PAL also provides youth with a full-course meal and snacks throughout the day, which for most participants ends at 6 p.m.

“By participating in programs like ours, they develop personal relationships with police officers and see us as people,” said retired Sgt. Kenneth Ragland, founding member and executive director of Henrico PAL.

All programs are implemented by police officers, volunteers, teachers and community partners, such as The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen. PAL volunteers are seen as mentors and role models for the participants and are encouraged to develop personal bonds with them, Ragland said.

“We’ve had a young lady who was in our after-school program for a few years and then she joined our youth leadership council,” Sheehan said. “She’s comfortable talking to me, more than other people, and she will let me help her, or guide her, or get her down the right path for what she needs to do, and I think it’s great to have that relationship with her.”

To date, more than 1,300 youngsters have participated in Henrico PAL. Currently, there are more than 300 enrolled in the program among the three Henrico public schools that offer it: Chamberlayne Elementary School, Harvie Elementary and Baker Elementary, the latest addition to schools offering after-school programs.

The Baker Elementary site opened enrollment for its after-school program in September. Baker offers programs for students in the general Varina area, and Henrico PAL offers transportation to Baker from neighboring elementary and middle schools.

“It was prompted by the citizens in Varina that were really craving a PAL program in their area, based on things they had heard or experienced in the other programs we have in Harvie and Chamberlayne,” Ragland said.

The site has between 90 to 100 students enrolled, a high number for a recently started program, Ragland said. By comparison, previously established sites such as Chamberlayne Elementary have 115 to 120 students each.

Regardless, implementing a new program brought several challenges.

“One of the things we hang our hat on is making sure we provide our youth with a quality program,” Ragland said. “In order to do that, we want to stay true to our mission to form positive relationships between cops and kids, so we wanted to make sure we had law enforcement personnel in place that was dedicated to work that site.”

Program officials have assigned 16 to 20 officers to the Varina location and have formed a small full-time staff, Ragland said.

As with other PAL sites, Baker school teachers have engaged actively in the program, helping out with the educational aspect during homework time, Sheehan said.

Henrico PAL coordinators have worked closely with the Baker School community, attending PTA meetings and collaborating with teachers and parents.

“As of now, we’ve grown as a group [of staff],” Jenetha Whitney, site manager in Baker Elementary, said. “The teachers help us out with everything we need, and as a whole atmosphere, the community has embraced us pretty well and they’re excited to have us here.”

Children participating in the program have also expressed enthusiasm toward being a part of PAL.

“They were looking forward to having fun with us,” Whitney said. “They gave a big roar when we told them ‘Welcome to Baker!’”

In light of the success at Baker Elementary, Henrico PAL staff expect to keep expanding the program to other parts of Henrico as resources permit, so as not to compromise the quality of the program.

“The smiles you see on these kids’ faces, that they’re not home just sitting there – that they’re being active, and they’re being exposed to all different facets – that’s important to me,” Sheehan said.
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June 2017
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