Urban Youth Buckle Down
by Merrik Bush
San Mateo Police Activities League (PAL)
HERE'S THE STORY: A seasoned police officer, discouraged by juvenile crime, puts together a soccer team of underdog Latino gang members. Using an innovative approach to coaching, he turns their troubled lives around. Not only do they win a league championship, they also get off the streets, do better in school, and win civic awards. In the process, a player is stabbed en route to practice, a gang fight breaks out during a soccer game, teammates end up in jail, and the officer is ostracized by conservative colleagues, who ultimately commend him for his work.
This is not a Hollywood screenplay. It's the hard-scrabble thesis project of real-life San Mateo police sergeant Mike Buckle (M.A., '10), who graduated in May as the University's graduate hood recipient.
"In the beginning, it was really tough," says Buckle, who is the former director of San Mateo's Police Activities League (PAL), which connects cops to children. "It took six weeks of meetings to get them to open up and start trusting us."
But open up they did.
"It was a really powerful program," says David Walsh (see feature), Buckle's thesis advisor. "He was working with really tough kids, in a terrible environment, but amazing things came out of it." Employing what he learned from Walsh's urban youth development curriculum, mixed with sports psychology theory and a little positive reinforcement, Buckle succeeded in creating an effective outreach program that PAL still uses today.
"When we introduced the ideas of respect and caring, the kids responded quickly," says Buckle. "For the first time in years, they could relax and be kids again."
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