North by Northwest: Law Enforcement Make The Best PALS
by Beth Hall and courtesy of BCSO Police Athletic League
Chris and Kimberly Sparks, co-founders of Benton County PAL program
To kids, the police can be one of two things: scary and intimidating or a protector and someone they respect. The Police Athletic League of Benton County (PAL) hopes to create trust and understanding between police officers and youth by utilizing educational, athletic and recreational activities.
“If you catch them at the right age, and they’re not ‘too cool’ for the police, you can really affect them,” Cap. Chris Sparks, co-founder of the Benton County PAL program, said. “Whenever you walk into a school or activity center, and you have a badge and gun, they’re in awe.”
Since 1936, PAL’s mission has remained unchanged: to keep young people out of trouble by channeling their energies into recreational and athletic programs. The national program was founded in New York City by Lt. Thomas Flynn with a passion to keep kids off the street. That same passion was brought to northwest Arkansas more than 60 years later by Sparks in 2009.
“Chris Sparks’ heart and soul is in this program, and he has the passion for it,” said Tina Crose, whose son, Christopher Jr. went through the program. “He really wants these children to succeed in everything. He takes on a role as mentor as well as building a program that keeps them safe.”
One of the largest juvenile crime prevention programs in the country, with more than 3 million youth members throughout the United States, the National PAL encompasses more than 700 cities, counties and townships, servicing more than 400 member chapters. Benton County Sheriff’s Office PAL, a non-profit 501 (c)(3), is the second chapter in Arkansas to offer this to the community, with North Little Rock Police Department being first.
“The PAL program is really going to make a difference here,” Cynthia Coughlin, executive board member, said. “I don’t think anyone knows how they touch another person’s life, especially children. One child who hated policemen went through the program and now wants to be one. How remarkable is it to do something like that.”
PAL offers free year-round and seasonal educational, athletic and cultural programs for children between the ages of 4 and 17 with a prime responsibility of the prevention of juvenile crime. Currently partnering with the Boys and Girls Club and Rogers Activity Center to host their programs, PAL is raising money to construct its own building on Hwy, 12 from three acres that Coughlin and husband Tom donated and 26 acres from the city of Bentonville.
The first activity PAL started in the summer of 2009 was the Junior Police Academy. Thirty students are selected every summer for the free weeklong class. All aspects of law enforcement are taught by police officers within each division of the Sheriff’s office including SWAT demos, narcotics and K-9 demonstrations.
“My vision is to do more than arrest the bad guys and put them in jail,” Sparks said. “We can actually play a part in the kids’ lives when they’re young. You’re not going to change every kid, but we’re doing a good job changing a bunch of them.”
While there are kids involved in the program who were nominated to attend from the juvenile detention center, other kids are simply looking for a career path or a mentor.
Christopher Crose Jr. job-shadowed at the Benton County Sheriff’s office when he was in eighth grade. After learning about the Academy, he attended, and the program forever changed his life.
“The Junior Police Academy opened his eyes into different career fields,” Crose said. “He wanted to be a detective, then an evidence logger, then an undercover agent. He wanted to do everything. It was so beneficial for him to go to the program and to build the relationships that continue through to this day. Chris Sparks and the other officers have been involved in my son’s life from the day they met until now.”
The other major focus of PAL is RadKIDS. PAL was able to add this national program into their vision in 2010 with a $10,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation. The national program teaches children how to handle abduction, bullying and school violence, child abuse and neglect and sexual assault. RadKIDS teaches youth to have the mindset of ‘how dare you touch me’ instead of ‘help me, help me,’ Sparks said.
“When you can be face-to-face with these kids and listen to them tell you this program has changed their lives, that’s the kind of stuff that makes me want to keep doing it,” Sparks said. “That badge can do a lot more for you than just arrest people. Some of the most rewarding cases don’t even compare to seeing a kid’s face light up when giving them a plastic PAL badge.”
To learn more about PAL or to donate, visit bentoncountysheriff.org/PAL.