HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – The Harrisburg Area Police Athletic League (HAPAL) is bridging multiple gaps by building relationships between kids and law enforcement and offering sports programs to youth at no cost.

“I want to get as many kids as we can involved in sports, because if they’re involved in sports, they’re focused, they have goals, they’re not out in the streets,” said Dr. Charles E. Stuart, CEO and Chairman of the Board for HAPAL.

HAPAL serves kids from seven years old all the way to young adults who are attending college, however, their current biggest group of participants is between seven and 13 years old. The organization offers programs in track and field, basketball and baseball and they are currently trying to expand into boxing, lacrosse and soccer as well as starting a female-only basketball team.

Stuart says that the goal is to offer as many sporting programs as possible. Since it is offered at no cost to all children who participate, HAPAL relies on volunteer coaches who are willing to help. They are always open to new volunteers who want to assist with an already existing program or who want to introduce a new sport to HAPAL.

Damon Blair-Jones, a member of HAPAL who is helping to pioneer the girls’ basketball program, is excited about the growth possibilities within HAPAL because he realizes how much having different sports opportunities changes children’s lives.

“I believe what you learn through sports is not only how to build with others and interact with others, but you learn life lessons and I think that’s an essential stepping stone for these kids in learning how to deal with real-life tribulation,” said Blair-Jones.

Track and field director Johnny Allen participated in the HAPAL when it started in 1957 with a building on Third Street. There, the HAPAL offered boxing, swimming and basketball and one of the policemen became like a grandfather to Allen.

“I was a 10-year-old Harrisburg kid,” said Allen. “We all got to know him, he was always there for us (and kept) us on the straight and narrow . . . the doors were open for us.”

Eventually, the program ended up folding and the facility that was used was sold. Eventually in 2012, the HAPAL was brought back. In February 2014 Stuart, who is retired from law enforcement and played basketball in college and Europe, joined the HAPAL. Stuart and James Jones started working to revitalize the program; one of their big initiatives has been to incorporate all of Dauphin County, not just the city of Harrisburg.

“My direction is this – have the police become involved, have the police get to know the kids so that there’s not anybody afraid of a police office,” Stuart said. “There’s some good police officers and there’s some bad police officers.”

Stuart’s goal has worked and two of the 45+ track and field athletes under Allen’s feelings towards officers are an example of that.

“I have a great deal of gratitude towards the police,” said Gionni Premici, a track and field athlete. “I feel like their dedication towards spots and Harrisburg, deserves some sort of respect. Overall, I do think that they’re trying to . . . fit in a little bit more so the first thing we don’t think is they’re trying to harm us in any way.”

Paula Orusede, a track and field athlete from Nigeria who will be attending college in New York, had her perspective changed after joining HAPAL five years ago when she came to America.

“I think the police department, it’s very different in Nigeria than it is here and with PAL it’s really helped to change my perspective because the news and everything is a lot different than actually being in the position where you meet these people,” said Orusede.

The track and field program, which is called ‘The Art of Running’ was added just two years ago and teaches the fundamentals of the sport. Orusede and Premici and their teammates have already been able to benefit from the novice program. Orusede noted that the HAPAL allows her to have one-on-one coaching that she didn’t receive in high school.

“When I go to college I get to be better off than I would have been without this program,” Orusede said.

Premici suffered an injury during this past spring season at school and did not get to participate as much during outdoor track. Premici noted that the HAPAL helped him to recover and get back to running.

“This little program that (Allen) had going on helped me get back on my right leg,” Premici said. “I’m back on both feet; I’m good.”

The HAPAL doesn’t just offer free sporting opportunities to the youth. Still, they also sponsor their children to attend camps such as the Cal Ripken summer baseball camp, host a “Shop with Cops” event, and hold writing workshops and poetry contests. They’ve also partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of Harrisburg.

The HAPAL participants just want to see Dauphin County’s youth thrive.

“Everybody thinks Harrisburg is just kids running around the streets acting (like) fools, that’s not the case; It’s not the case at all,” Stuart said. “We’ve got responsible parents, we’ve got responsible kids that are doing the right thing, or at least trying to do the right thing, (and) we’re here to give them that support.”

The HAPAL also recognizes that there are many talented athletes in the Harrisburg area who deserve a place to grow in their sport outside of their high school seasons without being expected to pay anything.

“Harrisburg does have a lot of untapped talent,” Stuart said “(There’s) a lot of kids out there that deserve a chance just like everyone else so we at HAPAL try to give them that chance.”

Stuart and the HAPAL refuse to charge a child who has the desire to learn and grow, instead, he says he will work hard to get grants, or whatever else is needed to make, sure kids have the opportunity to play sports.

The HAPAL is changing the lives of Harrisburg and Dauphin County’s youth. They are offering a safe haven where kids can foster, or develop, their love of sports and learn valuable skills that will support them throughout their lives. They do all of this while developing positive, impactful relationships between kids and cops.