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Todd Bettison, deputy chief of the Detroit Police Department, has a message for all those who like to say that children are our future.

“Children are our right now,” said the 22-year veteran. “If our children are not prepared for the future, it is not going to be bright.”

That is the thinking behind Team Up, a program from Detroit PAL (Police Athletic League) that bridges the gap between the city’s youth and its police officers. Since its inception in 2015, more than 1,400 youth and nearly 100 officers have taken part in Team Up. In addition to helping coach some of PAL’s 11 different recreational programs, which range from baseball, golf, basketball to cheer,  police officers also lead at least 10 mentoring sessions each season in which participants get to know each other on a personal level.

“They relate to each other one-on-one. The officers get to take the mask off and really relate to the kids on their level,” said Dana Cooper, who oversees the program as PAL’s director of youth enrichment. “They help the kids take down their walls, talk about matters of the heart and see them as more than police officers.”

Teaming up at The Corner

Expanding the reach of Team Up is a key part of the growth plans for PAL, which is in the process of converting the old Tiger Stadium at Michigan and Trumbull into a thriving center for youth sports and development. The $20-million project, which will be completed this spring, includes a 2,500-seat stadium called The Corner Ballpark presented by Adient and an artificial turf field dubbed the Willie Horton Field of Dreams presented by Meijer. A Hall of Heroes will spotlight influential athletes and other local individuals from the world of sports, and PAL will have a permanent headquarters and training center for its 14,000 athletes, their families and 2,000 volunteers – numbers the organization plans to keep increasing.

“Having PAL at The Corner is pretty awesome,” said Detroit Police Officer Marcus Norwood, who grew up cheering the Tigers and has been involved with PAL since he played tee-ball as a kid. “It’s exciting to know we will have a place of our own.”

The impressive project is being funded by a variety of sources, including everyday individuals who are purchasing commemorative bricks that will line The Corner’s front plaza. Ranging in price from $150 to $500, the bricks are available in three sizes and can be personalized with several lines of text.  Bettison said he plans to buy one, calling the bricks “a part of history that will forever be a part of sacred ground.”

Also available is a 4-inch by 4-inch keepsake replica tile ($25) with the same engraving as your brick. Visit http://detroitpal.org/brick-campaign/ to learn more or purchase your own little piece of The Corner.

Paying it forward

Officer Norwood has been coaching youth sports since 1987 and has been involved with Team Up since its inception. “PAL isn’t just about athletics,” he noted. “We use that to get kids in, but then we guide them in the right direction and give them options to use so they can make better choices. We want them running toward police officers instead of away from us.”

The mentoring portion of Team Up is especially rewarding, Norwood said. “We start by asking the question, ‘How many of you like the police?’ A lot of the time the response isn’t positive, but they have no idea why- they just “believe” they’re not supposed to. However, by the end of the program, they are asking, ‘Do you have to go? Can you come back?’ This is helping to prevent crimes before they happen.”

Norwood, especially appreciates the many times he runs into a former PAL participant who is now a successful adult. “I must say, it’s pretty cool when a grown man comes up to you and says, ‘Hey Officer Norwood, you coached me when I was 10 years old.’”

Bettison, who plans to enroll his young son in PAL when he is old enough, agrees. “People get to know that our police officers care,” he said. “When you affect a kid’s life through PAL, you also change a whole family’s outlook about the police.’”

It scores!

Team Up scores highly with both the youth and officers involved. Evaluation results show that 100 percent of youth surveyed said they had fun and that they now respect police officers. Every officer involved indicated he or she would do it again.

“Our goal is to continue to grow the number of participants and officers each year,” Cooper noted. Statistics from the Skillman Foundation confirm the need: More than 70 percent of Detroit’s children live in single-family households, more than 57 percent of Detroit families live in poverty, and more than 82 percent of Detroit PAL participants receive free or reduced-fee lunch at school.

Bettison, who serves as Detroit Police’s official liaison to PAL, looks forward to seeing the program grow. “Detroit PAL is a solid program and we have police departments from all over the country that look to us as one of the best,” he said. “But we have to do more. We need more volunteers, adult mentors and sponsors.

“It’s a wonderful experience to be able to see the character and discipline that sports and teamwork brings. Sports brings everyone together, all genders, all races,” Bettison added. “We teach the kids that everything is about teamwork – you can’t succeed on your own.”

Visit detroitpal.org to learn how you can befriend PAL by buying a brick, volunteering or mentoring. 

Members of the editorial and news staff of The Detroit News were not involved in the creation of this content.

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