Michelle Hernandez was in sixth grade when she started showing up at the Police Activities League, a year round mentorship and activities program operating under the direction of the Pasadena Police Department.
Hernandez, now 17, describes herself as being “shy and nervous” at the time.
These days, the Marshall High School senior is anything but shy and nervous and she credits much of the personality transformation to the Police Activities League, commonly known as P.A.L.
The low-cost program based on East Walnut Street is open to youngsters ages nine to 17 within the Pasadena Unified School District.
Many come from low income families, who may not have the chance to enroll in other, more expensive youth programs.
For a one-time cost of $40, P.A.L. kids can participate performing arts programs, take computer classes and compete in a variety of sports.
They receive help with their homework and mentorship from youth counselors and the Pasadena police officers who oversee the P.A.L.
Through P.A.L., Hernandez got to participate in the YMCA’s Youth & Government program and taken trips to the state capital in Sacramento.
Hernandez, who has two older siblings who were both P.A.L. kids, is on the verge of graduating from high school and will attend San Diego State University in the fall.
She has aspirations of becoming an attorney, advocating for children.
“Being at P.A.L., honestly, showed me where I wanted to go in life,” said Hernandez, one of five high school seniors in the program. “I would never have known about all those opportunities if it wasn’t for PAL. Throughout the years, everybody here helped me grow.”
P.A.L. youngsters also compete in basketball, soccer and karate tournaments, take field trips that have included visits to theme parks, the Hearst Castle and the Pasadena Playhouse.
Marshall senior Eduardo Cortes has been a P.A.L. kid since third grade and acknowledges having issues with grades and behavior when he first entered the program.
Cortes said the police officers in P.A.L. want to see the kids succeed.
“I wasn’t a good kid and I wasn’t a smart kid so coming to P.A.L. really put me in my place,” Cortes said. “It kind of like brought everything together so I wouldn’t fall apart. I think that is what P.A.L. is, a place to bring your kid, if your kid is not doing so well.”
Cortes, who is likely headed to Pasadena City College, also said he is grateful for all the free excursions and experiences P.A.L. provided, including the Youth & Government Program.
“I thought that was really interesting,” Cortes said. “I didn’t think I would ever do anything like that.”
Pasadena PD’s P.A.L. chapter is among close to 100 P.A.L. chapters in California, each one operated by a local law enforcement agency. All are under the umbrella of California P.A.L.
Nationally, there are nearly 300 P.A.L. chapters.
Pasadena PD Officers Louis Luevano and Eddie Bondarczuk oversee the Pasadena P.A.L. chapter, which serves about 140 families.
“What’s been nice for me … we come in contact with them outside of P.A.L. and they say we’ve played a role in their accomplishments,” Luevano said. “It’s humbling.
Luevano said he and Bondarczuk play a role, but the youth advisors are the ones who have the most influence on the kids.
Senior Youth Advisor Carolina Banuelos said one of the most gratifying parts of her job is watching the P.A.L. kids blossom over time.
“I think the most rewarding thing about this job is finding these kids’ inner strength and practice that every single day,” Banuelos said. “A lot of these kids are very shy. They are very nervous because it’s a new environment. They are very scared to try new things. “(We tell them) you may fail, but we are going to get you back up.”
Michael Bentley, 20, was a Pasadena PD Explorer for four years before becoming a youth advisor at P.A.L.
Bentley hopes to be a police officer and was told serving in P.A.L. would be a good steppingstone.
“It’s really rewarding because you are giving (the kids) advice and they come back and say, ‘hey it worked,’” Bentley said. “You really feel like you are helping these kids out.”