*As published in New York Daily News, July 2012*
Ten-year-old Tyler Lilavois patiently waited in the heat for the games and equipment to arrive at the Castle Hill Playground on the first day of the Police Athletic League’s (PAL) Summer Play Streets program. His favorite game, Nok Hockey, brings him back each year.
Lisa Keels eagerly held an application to enroll her only child in the program because it offers city kids and teens the opportunity to play in a safe, supervised environment for free until August 24.
“I am a single, working mother and I put my daughter in a Christian academy throughout the year, so that’s $525 a month toward tuition, so during the summer months a little break is always nice,” Keels, 26, said. “And it’s helpful to put her in a program that I know is not just free, but safe.”
Her 6-year-old daughter, Niasia Sands played with a Hula Hoop until she ventured off with chalk to draw on a basketball court.
On Monday, when the playstreet on Castle Hill Ave. and Parker St. opened, a couple dozen kids showed up. About 200 kids used it last summer.
It is one of 14 PAL playstreets in the Bronx, and 50 throughout the five boroughs, that offer basketball, stickball, street games and arts and crafts.
“For the next seven weeks we are going to be here 9 to 5 with these kids, playing with them nonstop,” PAL staffer Simione(CQ) Corbett, 24, said. Some of the staff are teens in the Summer Youth Employment Program.
But the staffers aren’t just chaperones; they see themselves as mentors. For Corbett, a tough upbringing allows him to better help participants.
“I can teach them the right or wrongs of the street because I lived it,” he said. “If they’re going through something and feel they can talk to us, we accomplished something.”
Second-year site director Terron Jones, 24, said staffers do a lot of drug and crime prevention education while creating a safe haven.
“This program definitely gets them away from what they’re used to seeing–fighting, shooting,” Jones said.
Jones was a participant himself since he was 11 and was inspired by a park director who taught him respect.
“I was a real smart alec and he humbled me,” Jones said. “I didn’t have a father figure growing up. For a man to impact their life is something they need. For them to see complete strangers care about them just because…kids don’t forget stuff like that.”