There is a lot of work to be done in Lealman, where the Pinellas Sheriff’s Police Athletic League (PAL) complex is. We have some of the highest statistics in everything you don’t want to have: a high teen pregnancy rate, high dropout rates, high number of kids on free lunches, you name it. There are kids here who would rather be involuntarily committed under Florida’s Baker Act law than go home at the end of the day. Lealman has no grocery stores, few safe places to play and is home to a mobile home park that PBS dubbed “Pervert Park.” Lealman is the kind of place that would be easy to pretend doesn’t exist. But once you walk around and talk to the kids, it is impossible to turn your back on them.
When I started here at PAL as the executive director in 2013, it was very real to me that I wasn’t in a position to change the lives of these kids all by myself. I needed community partners, and fast.
The Pinellas County Sheriff and his office have been our rock. But my philosophy is that if you show up and want to help, you are welcome. Lealman isn’t a glamorous place. It’s gritty and some of the issues here are difficult to confront. But I have found that in maintaining an open door to those who want to help, we can make changes, bit by bit.
Four years ago, the idea of having a hydroponic farm so that the kids would have access to fresh fruits and vegetables was not even on the drawing board. Four years ago, the idea that we would be in a position to take 12 of our best kids on a tour of a national park so they could have a summer vacation would have been even more unreal. But we are doing this.
We are able to provide services to these kids that they would not be able to have otherwise. Our kids previously would not have been able to go on a five-day tour visiting 10 Florida colleges, which include University of Florida, Florida State University, University of Central Florida and University of South Florida. That we are able to provide this for the kids means that getting a higher education isn’t just a far-fetched idea, but a reality for all of them.
We have a well-established sports complex with tons of activities. We now have the ability to offer a wide range of sports including baseball, wrestling, boxing, coed dodge ball, flag football, golf, hockey, tennis and volleyball. We even have a drumline with dozens of kids. They get booked and travel around performing at events. There are so many activities for the kids of this area to participate in and they have such a great time.
We are able to do this because we work with partners from all over the community. Big groups like Walmart, the United Way and the Juvenile Welfare Board. Churches such as the Church of Scientology, Tree of Life and Suncoast Haven of Rest. Private investment groups such as PNC Bank and Boston Holdings. They all contribute and see that the road out for these kids is by working together.
Not everyone is willing to answer the call. Working together is the only way I know to make an actual difference and I am honored to work side by side with anyone whose intention is to provide a future for kids who would otherwise have none.
Brickfield is the executive director of Pinellas Sheriff’s PAL