GNPAL hosts 10th anniversary bash
When Brett Wells thinks of the 10 years that have passed, he gets a flashback to the night George Fairel cut the ribbon on the steps of the Greater Norristown Police Athletic League Center.
Picturing that Thursday in August 2004, he can see a bunch of people, mostly volunteers, with a lot of dreams and ideas and a big empty building that would hopefully hold them all.
The Monday after the ribbon cutting, the center was welcoming 200 kids for its renowned basketball camp and it’s been tearing along at an unbroken clip ever since.
“From the time we cut that ribbon we’ve never really looked back,” said PAL’s executive director moments before guests began arriving for the center’s 10th anniversary gala on July 29. “Sometimes I’m flabbergasted at the degree of growth we’ve had. The 10 years of evolution has really been dramatic. It’s been fun to be a part of the whole thing, from before the opening to now. And I’ve got all the gray hairs to prove I’ve been here through the whole thing,” he added, laughing.
Wells came on board in April the year the center opened, overseeing the renovation of a piece of real estate on Harding Boulevard that was just a glimmer of a notion in 1974, the year Norristown PAL was chartered and folks like former
Norristown police Captain Willie Richet and Sal Gambone had a vision of a place where kids could play sports, learn and just hang out.
“To look at what we’ve become in 10 years, the building is far from empty at this point; it’s full day in and day out,” Wells said. “And to look at how we’ve grown as a staff, to two full-timers and about five part-timers plus the maintenance help. And that’s all been because we’ve grown responsibly throughout the 10 years and have been able to add staff as we go along. Some of the volunteers have been with PAL since renovations began. They’ve all played a role in our success in that time period.”
The magnitude of PAL’s inclusiveness in the community creates a perception that the organization is actually much bigger than it is, Wells noted.
“In terms of budget and staffing, we’re a relatively small organization. But I think that helps us because if we get a really good idea that we’re excited about we can turn around and make it happen within a couple of months, as opposed to having to go through different levels of management. A lot of times we can respond to community needs faster that way.”
Helping to fuel PAL’s image as a nonprofit be- hemoth are events such as the phenomenally popular annual fundraiser, the International Food & Wine Festival; the “I Got Hands” boxing program; the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service; Harry Mirabile scholarship program; a recent job fair; and the basketball camps.
But if there’s one event closest to Wells’ heart, it is probably the annual Lt. Patty Simons Law En- forcement Food Drive.
“There are a lot of things to be excited about. I like the things that we do consistently that people count on. And if I looked at highlights of the last 10 years, one of the things that stands out is definitely our Law Enforcement Food Drive because it brings together dozens of law enforcement groups, county offices and businesses to raise seven or 10 tons of food,” he said. “It’s one of the events that really gets us a lot of recognition.”
Along with early supporters Gambone, Richet and Jim McCrudden, Joan Morello helped form the center’s goals long before it had a physical presence and was operating as a series of random activities for kids popping up all over town.
“In the late ’90s, they all realized that if the organization was going to really have an impact in Norristown, it needed a building,” Wells said. “This year is also the 40th anniversary of PAL programs in Norristown, but the bigger thing people recognize us for is the last 10 years of the building.”
As Morello and Richet mingled with guests munching on appetizers provided by Sessano Café & Deli, they reflected on those early years.
“It’s overwhelming,” Morello said. “Ten years ago I remember walking in this building and thinking how we needed to refurbish it and what it would be used for and where we might be in five years. Not only did we get the building open, but we surpassed our goal of what we were able to offer. And we continue to grow and surpass it.”
Founding member Richet, now chief deputy with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department, said there was a time he never imagined the center would reach a milestone 10th anniversary.
“We were running programs all over Norristown, and it was hard in the beginning to get people to help. But eventually philanthropist Harry Mirable was able to get all of us together as the best possible team. We were finally able to get this building ... and here we are today.”
Brett Wells, executive director, with board President Alan Tempest, shares a few remarks about the success of the Greater Norristown Police Athletic League’s last 10 years.