Pack Heroes: Robert Jamerson
CEO OF DETROIT POLICE ATHLETIC LEAGUE (PAL). HERO.
"Imagine a father’s exuberance as he looks into the eyes of his newborn son--someone he could, one day, teach to lead a family and also carry on his legacy. Like most parents, his joy soon became stifled by a quick shot of fear of all the worldly dangers from which he may not be able to protect his son. Now, imagine compounding that fear with recounts of systemic challenges unique to this father’s socio-economic standing--challenges his newborn child would soon inherit far before he was mature enough to even fathom their root causes. This was my father’s experience as I entered the world and a tear-filled memory he shared with me as I grew into a young man.
Who would have thought I would become the change that my dad had hoped for so that other fathers would not experience that same realization by my work at Detroit PAL?
My parents split when I was young, and while my mother worked diligently to provide my older brother and older sister and I with her very best, she could not escape raising us in marginalized communities in California. Growing up in an underserved community, where resources and fruitful activities for children were scarce, I was presented with options from which most parents prefer to shield their children including gang environments. The currents of street life are vicious ones that often give the misleading impression that the water is shallow, but its waves eventually submerge even the best swimmers. In California with my mother, I faced a great deal of idle time that was sure to lead me to those dangerous waves--those challenges that struck my father with fear when I was only minutes old. As a result, my parents agreed that I would thrive much better living with him and my grandmother in Detroit. I loved the attention that I received from my dad and the calm demeanor and environment he provided. He kept me focused.
As I grew acclimated to my new home, I developed a skill set that would prove useful later in life--agility. Learning to quickly adapt to an environment and learning new skills to support that adjustment are key ingredients to the recipe for youth who will later rise as leaders in whatever they endeavor."
“The Walk that Sparked a Change”
"As a young boy in Detroit, I can recall walking with my cousin on the proverbial “corner store run for granny” to grab the staples: cigarettes, lottery tickets and her favorite snack--a right of passage for young African American adolescents in the inner-city. This was many kids’ first set of responsibilities outside of chores and a test of trust from our elders. As we trekked by an expressway I saw, in a nearby field, a Police Athletic League (PAL) team named the Detroit Panthers in uniform practicing. Instantly, images of myself adorned in my plastic Pittsburgh Steelers helmet diving over my Grandmother’s couch to make the imaginary game-winning touchdown played in my head. Beyond watching NFL games and a few flag football scrimmages I had participated in, this was the first experience that made my dreams of football realistic and attainable. Seeing the Panthers--children my age learning how to harness motivation and build leadership skills through an innocent childhood pastime--meant so much more than what televised sports had to offer. That glimpse of opportunity helped turn adversity into opportunity. It lit a fire in me that has yet to be extinguished.
Needless to say, I joined PAL’s Panthers where I was able to plant roots and flourish. After joining PAL at 9 years old, I rose through the ranks of the Panthers organization--the leader I always knew I could become and much stronger tests of responsibility and trust than my youthful corner store runs for granny. For me, football fostered lifelong friendships--developing a brotherhood with teammates who I maintained life-long connections with even after playing in PAL, progressing on to high school and all the way through my adulthood, today."
Sports: A Full Circle Experience
"As a child, my PAL experience taught me resilience, leadership skills, and later, as an adult, empathy for youth living in environments similar to the one that groomed me. As a football player, PAL instilled in me the skills I would later use to uphold its legacy as its CEO. The Detroit Police Athletic League affords me the opportunity to help Detroit’s youth find their GREATNESS in a manner that does not force them to grow up too quickly like many of those challenges my dad once feared, but rather, to actually learn and grow at a pace that preserves the innocence and beauty of adolescence. Moreover, it allows me to approach everything through love. I work in a field that I love while supporting a demographic that I love by emitting compassion in every value I teach from embracing PAL participants with care that they may not always receive outside of the league to delivering tough love by sometimes telling PAL players what they need to hear versus what they may want to hear.
Watching children, starting at the very tumultuous position I once stood, become young men with purpose who, despite their environmental influences, are dodging the same challenges I once dodged (the pre-school-to-prison pipeline) as a direct result of my coaching is rewarding. Without becoming a formal teacher or counselor, PAL empowered me to change my life and help other young men overcome adversity and realize a better future for themselves."
Adapting to Adversity
"Even today, as I stand, a well-balanced adult and productive member of society--thanks, in part, to PAL--I still find myself navigating obstacles that echo the struggles my father and many others like us find all too familiar.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly devastated communities and organizations across the globe, PAL also finds itself fighting for survival in order to offer our community a healthy outlet that adheres to guidelines that will keep them safe.
I have to look at hard necessities, like right-sizing and think about how to plan for the future while getting through the present. That includes ensuring staff is paid and safe to execute the goals of keeping kids active, learning and safe. We are tasked with all of that while simultaneously continuing to humanize police officers in the community--a community that is also gripped by tensions and fears catalyzed by instances of police brutality in communities just like ours across the nation.
Likewise, registration declined as citizens adhered to quarantine restrictions or fell victim to the virus in unparalleled statistics as a result of racial health disparities in a predominantly minority-populated city. In times of an air-borne pandemic, high-contact sports are risky. However, those lessons of agility and upskilling that I learned while adapting to my move to Detroit as a kid came in handy as my team and I thought outside of our normal playbook to figure out a way to keep our employees earning and our kids fraternizing and learning.
We’ve formed new partnerships by leveraging old relationships and developed new programming (that included low-contact sports as well as other non-athletic activities) that offer children new skills that they can use on and off of the field. We also instilled in our donors and investors a confidence that their financial support is still making a major difference.
Despite the pressure these challenges present, I am grateful that I face them because the children in PAL have yet another example of perseverance, problem-solving, teamwork and passion. This pandemic reminds me--and hopefully our PAL participants-- to be thankful for the storms in our lives, because the rain is needed to loosen soil and get to the seeds that have been planted. The pandemic was the storm that unearthed my seeds of agility to figure out how to persevere and become a solution to someone’s problem--be that the threat of unemployment, loss of recreation or faltering of program funds.
Detroit PAL strives to be the best at addressing socio-economic, educational and health and wellness challenges of the community through creative collaboration. The only way we can combat the systemic challenges in the community is by coming together. Our organization continues to do that during this pandemic, and in doing so, PAL continues to motivate me just as it once did when I saw the Panthers for the first time. My involvement with this organization is cyclical. Since childhood, it has given me something to passionately work toward and I return that investment with effort deposited directly back into making sure it rises to new heights of community improvement. Whether suiting up for practice to suiting up professionally, my goal has always been to score for the Detroit Police Athletic League. Oh how I have prayed for that endowment of 30 million dollars that would allow for a 50 plus year old organization to be sustainable for the next 50 years."