GNPAL hosts 10th an­niver­sary bash

The Colonial - - FRONT PAGE - By Gary Puleo gpuleo@21st-cen­tu­ry­

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.”

21st Cen­tury Me­dia photo / ADRI­ANNA HOFF

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.

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