Sixty teenage boys crowded onto the polished basketball court at the Torrington Armory on March 12, their shouts ringing against the rafters, athletic shoes chirping, a basketball thump-thumping in rapid dribbling, the backstop vibrating as the ball slammed into it and fell through the net.
The boys were black, white, brown, tall, short, a cross-section of the city’s youth. Besides their love of basketball, they had at least one other thing in common: They bear no animosity toward police officers.
Sixty teenage boys. They trust the police. Nationwide, only 41 percent of America’s youth trust law enforcement officers, according to a 2015 Reuters poll.
But the whistle the boys just heard was blown by a police officer named Anthony Pietrafesa, whom some of the boys have known and worked with for many years in Torrington PAL (Police Activities League), which is funded in part by donations to the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal.
Tonight, Officer Pietrafesa was evaluating the basketball skills of these boys so he and his volunteer coaches could form teams and begin an eight-game schedule. It is one of many activities Torrington PAL sponsors for both boys and girls from pre-kindergarten to 18, including running, mentoring and more.
“I know most of these kids and the ones I don’t know I make a special effort to get to know and for them to get to know me,” Officer Pietrafesa said. “What PAL is really about is police officers getting involved with youngsters. That’s really what PAL’s mission is, is to bridge that gap between police officers and kids.”
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Torrington PAL, one of three Connecticut-based chapters of the National Association of Police Athletic/Activities League (National PAL) that was founded in 1914 as the Police Athletic League. Its recent name change to Police Activities League reflects its enhanced program roster that includes non-athletic activities, including a trip to a local university to prepare high school kids for college life, Officer Pietrafesa said.
He introduced a young man named Bryan Failla, a three-year volunteer who played basketball in the program for five years, beginning when he was in eighth grade nine years ago. His association with Officer Pietrafesa helped inspire him to enter the Connecticut Police Academy in Meriden. He is now a patrol officer in the Winsted Police Department.
“It’s just something I wanted to do. I went to school for criminal justice. I’ve got a couple of family members who were in law enforcement,” Failla said. “I love it. It’s a great career to be in.”
Sitting next to Officer Failla at the registration table was Sarah Szollosy, a volunteer who is an assistant program manager at a supportive housing program in Torrington.
“I didn’t come through PAL, but I definitely grew up with youth sports in town, so I wanted to be involved in these activities,” she said. “I just got an opportunity to start coaching, and I love the administrative side and everything I’ve been doing in helping things run.”
She helps with organizing the website (www.torringtonpal.org), as well as their Facebook page, ordering T-shirts, handling registrations, fundraising and more. “I’ve been handling a lot of the back-end stuff, because Tony’s already swamped with everything else,” she said.
Officer Pietrafesa said the basketball program requires filling out a registration form and collecting $60 from those who can afford it.
“We offer scholarships,” he said. “So when they come to the table and say, ‘I have $10,’ no questions asked. ‘I have nothing.’ OK, zero. ‘I have $60.’ OK. We don’t have a screening process, because my feeling is if you have a screening process for scholarship money, a parent might not come forward.”
He said money from the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal and other sources allows more kids to get involved by taking advantage of scholarship money. “It also subsidizes T-shirts, referees and trophies,” he said. Torrington PAL’s annual budget is about $150,000, he said. About 1,000 kids are involved each year.
Justin Mattiello, a 15-year-old sophomore at Torrington High School, has been in the basketball program since fourth grade. “If you get a group of friends that you like to play basketball with, it’s amazing,” he said. “You get to play your favorite sport while hanging with your friends. So you get everything that you want.”
Asked what he has gotten from the program, he said, “I definitely have learned leadership skills. You learn so much about the game, how you can apply it to real life. There’s a lot of social stuff, too. You learn to talk with others and that helps you with social skills outside the basketball court as well.”
His mother, Donna M. Mattiello, is director of academics at the nearby Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts. In an email, Mrs. Mattiello wrote:
“The PAL community in Torrington has enriched the community in all the important ways — supporting and providing a safe place for kids to come together and interact in ways they might not otherwise have had the opportunity to do. All the while learning to play a sport and reap the benefits of what comes with that — exercise, sportsmanship, respect for teammates and coaches, and so much more. Personally, our son, Justin, who has been playing in PAL since he was tiny, learned the game of basketball and was coached by some passionate adults. More importantly, he met kids on the court through the program who today are his best friends.”
New Haven started its PAL chapter in the early 1970s, and its programs are now directed by Sgt. Al McFadden of the New Haven Police Department. “You want to build a relationship,” he said. “You want to build that extension of our community-based programs, and so we are able to get out there and engage with the kids and create a relationship, create a partnership and gain trust.”
New Haven PAL’s programs include golf, basketball, baseball, street hockey, girls’ volleyball, a summer day camp, roller skating, bowling, martial arts and more. An annual $25 fee covers most activities except camp and golf (the latter is a fundraiser), he said. If parents have difficulty paying that fee, financial help is available, Sgt. McFadden said.
“The Catholic Church has been so instrumental in what we do because we don’t charge people more than $25,” he said. “We appreciate what you guys do for us.”
Sgt. McFadden said he is constantly being approached by parents and former PAL kids who have grown up. “They tell me they enjoyed it because they felt comfortable engaging with the police,” he said. “That’s the reward that I get out of it.”
Vicariate Outreach Program funds from the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal also support PAL programs in Hartford and Waterbury.