Hagerstown Area Police Athletic League bridges the gap between kids, cops, and the community.
By Kate Rader
Hagerstown, Md.—June 17, 2021. It’s a warm summer evening, and a crowd is forming around the hockey rink at Fairgrounds Park. Barricades offer slim protection against the incoming threat. But Hagerstown Police Department Chief Joey Kifer is ready. He ducks, nearly avoiding the bright blue incoming projectile. He hears a giggle, and just as swiftly, another is thrown. The wobbly red object whizzes past, landing with a splat on the ground. Chief Kifer turns, knowing he is outnumbered. Bombarded by a barrage of water balloons, he laughs and succumbs to his watery fate.
Chief Kifer is one of many enthusiastic volunteers attending the water balloon battle event organized by the Hagerstown Area Police Athletic League (PAL) as part of their “Play Hard, Live Clean” program, designed to engage area youth with officers and show them how being involved in athletics can have positive results, including keeping them off drugs.
Founded in 1996 by Hagerstown Police Officer Brett McCoy, PAL is a nonprofit organization designed to do just that—utilize recreational and athletic programs to help guide area youth with the hope that they will one day be productive leaders of the community. PAL tries to instill a positive relationship between the kids that participate in their various programs and police officers, community leaders, and volunteers.
Currently, PAL serves more than 330 area youth aged 5–18 through numerous athletic programs including wrestling, inline hockey, baseball, softball, outdoor volleyball, karate, weight lifting, and basketball. They also provide mentoring and homework help after school, educational programs, and week-long summer camps, including a Junior Police Academy program where kids get to meet K-9 officers and discuss police tactics and equipment to learn why the police exist and what their goals are.
With no paid staff, the success of PAL’s programs requires an army of volunteers with a passionate belief in the organization’s mission. Involved in the program since 2009, HPD detective Nicholas Varner became president of PAL because he firmly believes in the value of being involved in people’s lives beyond his professional role. “About a dozen HPD officers regularly participate in activities, but the organization is much larger,” Detective Varner says.
Other volunteers come from the State’s Attorney’s office, the office of parole and probation, and the community at large, all led by a 14-member board of directors who help with fundraising, programming, and youth interaction.
Jen Ferguson is PAL’s Secretary and the founder of its H-Town Elite youth basketball team. The program offers opportunities, such as being on a traveling team, that can require time and resources many families can’t afford. “We saw a need for a program where kids could afford to participate, and if they couldn’t, we could provide funding support.” Jen says they run leagues year-round for approximately 6–11 teams, and that the program, now directed by Whitney Bonds, allows players to create connections with their coaches and travel to new cities.
Hagerstown mayor Emily Keller believes that PAL is a crucial part of police/community relations. She says, “They help bridge the gap between our citizens and officers, allowing kids and families alike to see a more human side of police officers, while building invaluable relationships.”
Detective Varner notes that there are many examples of this kind of interaction like at the “Play Hard, Live Clean” event with Washington Goes Purple. “We try to bring kids together and provide entertainment. Nothing breaks down barriers like a water balloon in the face.”
More Than a Uniform
Detective Varner has personally seen the positive results from the relationships he’s built with the program’s kids—who have been able to count on him and other PAL volunteers to be there for them when they’ve experienced hard times in their lives.
He says, “It’s important that we’re intentional about how we communicate and act in the community. Youth sports are a big part of kids’ lives, and if we can participate in that, it bridges the gaps. It opens kids up to understanding that police officers are people. We’re friends, parents, and more than just the uniform we wear. When you are one of the people that they trust, there’s no better win than that.”
After the death of George Floyd in2020, PAL organized a series of meetings with area youth, offering them the opportunity to share their own experiences, and how they felt about the racial tension happening across the country. Called “Pause & Listen,” the event brought together kids, coaches, activists, and adults to learn about different perspectives and support one another.
During another outreach program in partnership with Lifehouse church, PAL arranged a panel to discuss community policing and police reform. Detective Varner explained, “We wanted to explore not just policing, but how does it work within the community. How do we break down barriers and create mutual respect. Trust is important because people are not only more comfortable and willing to share issues, but they can help affect and support the direction of the police force as it engages in enforcing the laws of our community.”
Serving the Greater Community Good
While PAL’s gym and outdoor facilities are located near the old grandstands at Hagerstown’s Fairgrounds Park, they frequently partner with other nonprofits to expand their reach. These partnerships are key to PAL’s success, resulting in fun programs like Midnight Basketball for Girls Inc. and the Boys & Girls Club.
Mayor Keller appreciates the synergy created when PAL collaborates with Washington Goes Purple. “Anytime organizations can come together to reach a broader audience it is a win for everyone. (We) share a similar mission —we are both invested in the health and wellness of our youth.”
Studies show that physical activity produces positive physical, social, and mental health effects. Detective Varner has seen how that impact can last into adulthood, and how alumni spread the word. “We have kids who have gone through the program, become world champions in their sports, and have come back and coached for us. I believe the impact of what we’re doing is huge.”
Learn more about the Hagerstown Area Police Athletic League by visiting their Facebook page.
Editor’s note: The print version of this story incorrectly listed Chief Kifer’s name and title. This version of the story has been corrected. We apologize for the error.