Nancy Edmonds Hanson
“Most of the time, we meet someone on the worst day of their life,” says Moorhead Police Sgt. Scott Kostohryz. “A first positive interaction with law enforcement makes all the difference in how it’s going to go on that day.”
Scott is one of 43 law enforcement officers – mostly Moorhead police, but also from the Clay County Sheriff’s Department and Minnesota Highway Patrol – who are enjoying every minute of making sure that first encounter is a good one. As volunteers with the Moorhead Police Athletics and Activities League, they can meet and mingle with children and youth in fun, no-pressure situations. Someday, when the chips are down, those youthful encounters can make a difference in creating two-way trust and understanding.
PAL, which is coming close to its first anniversary, is the latest chapter in a long and, Scott says, storied history of officers’ interaction with Moorhead youth. “We’ve brought a bunch of excellent programs together under one umbrella, and we’re looking for the community’s ideas for more,” Scott says.
The foundation of the new nonprofit organization lies in two well-established programs. One is the Minnesota Law Enforcement Explorers post Scott helped establish when he joined the Moorhead department almost 15 years ago. The Explorers give teens a first-hand introduction to the nuts and bolts of policing. For many, it’s a life-changer at the time when they’re looking for a path in life. Twenty former Explorers work in law enforcement today, including seven here in Moorhead, more than 10 percent of the police force.
The other is the annual Cops and Kids hockey game, played this year on Jan. 27. The kids, drawn from Moorhead Youth Hockey Association teams, won – as usual. More than 300 kids have taken part since the first game in 2007.
Drawing together those two programs under the PAL umbrella has been the catalyst for developing new ways for officers and youngsters to enjoy each other’s company. One advantage is community visibility. Another is providing a charitable organization that can accept donations from area businesses and individuals, from corporate gifts to individual support on Giving Hearts Day today. “It makes it easier to market the program – to gather ideas and raise the money we need, which the police department can’t provide,” he says. So far, Affinity Plus Credit Union, Choice Financial and Target have contributed to program costs, from jerseys for hockey players to hot chocolate and doughnuts for young safety patrol volunteers at all four Moorhead elementary schools.
Police officers themselves have pitched in when PAL projects need support. In early December, nine officers took a group of at-risk and economically disadvantaged children Christmas shopping at Target. The boys and girls chose gifts for their families while officers paid close attention; then, while their gifts were being wrapped, the cops sneaked back into the store to buy gifts that had caught the eye of the children themselves.
Other department personnel chose names of children living at Churches United from a giving tree in the department. The presents were wrapped and labeled with each child’s name. Santa Claus delivered them to the shelter in a squad car with red and blue lights spinning. “They were reserved while they first few got their gifts. Then it was noise, excitement and wrapping paper flying everywhere,” Scott remembers.
“I commented to one of the mothers, ‘This is just like a regular Christmas,’” he says. “She answered me, ‘He wouldn’t know.’”
More activities have emerged as PAL develops a following. Under the banner of PAL All-Stars, cop volunteers have taken kids to sporting events – the MSUM-Concordia basketball game last fall, a Fargo Force hockey match. They have a dozen seats behind home plate for a Redhawks game in May. They’ve rescued bicycles from the impound lot; after rehabilitation by Scheels, those bikes have delighted young recipients.
Scott says PAL is looking for ideas from Moorhead residents rather than dictating the department’s preferences. “We want to interact in the ways the community chooses,” he says. Inspiration has come from PAL’s board of directors, including coaches Chad Walthall of MSUM, Terry Horan of Concordia, Superintendent Brandon Lunak, Parks and Recreation director Holly Heitkamp, Mayor Johnathan Judd and city council member Shelly Aasen Carlson, as well as himself and Chief Shannon Monroe.
The two coaches have proposed summer skills camps in basketball and football. Scott is looking for sponsors for another brainstorm; the group would like to have law enforcement volunteers go into every second or third grade classroom in town to read a positive story about what policing is all about, then present every child with his or her own copy.
Most of PAL’s programs are focused on older elementary students: “They’re old enough to understand, but not so old that it’s not cool anymore,” he says with a smile.
Scott knows firsthand what a difference programs like PAL can make. He was drawn to a law enforcement career through an Explorers program in Circle Pines in the Twin Cities. “I fell in love with it,” he recalls. After earning a criminal justice degree at M State in Alexandria, he served for four years in Mankato before joining the Moorhead department in 2004. On the job, the sergeant investigates elder abuse and crimes against vulnerable adults.
In the long run, PAL and its volunteers hope to make an impact on the students they meet in all kinds of ways, from occasionally inspiring careers to providing positive role models, maintaining good relationships between the community and law enforcement, and reducing crime. In the short run – well, Scott says its activities are just the kind of thing that many officers signed up for.
“You don’t go into this career because you want to make a lot of money,” he observes. “You do it because you want to help people. PAL gives us a fun and positive way to make a difference.”