Miracle on Beech Street
During a time when the news cycle is filled with stories of tension between police officers and their communities, we invite you to learn about one local effort in Manchester that offers hope for the future.
A positive encounter between cops and kids isn’t as rare as you might think, particularly on the corner of Beech Street and Lake Avenue in Manchester. Photo by Matthew Lomanno
Cops helping and inspiring kids: In these contentious times, this simple formula sounds like a thing of the past, but if you look past the sensational news cycle and focus in on just one local effort, it will brighten your hopes for the future.
If you’re of a certain age and cursed with the kind of eidetic memory that allows you to recall in great detail every mediocre motion picture you’ve ever seen, you may remember a Jerry Lewis comedy called “The Delicate Delinquent.”
In it, Lewis’s character is mistakenly identified as a potential teenaged gang member — even though the actor was 30 years old at the time — who, through exposure to sports like boxing, wrestling and judo, is ultimately set on the right path by a gruff-but-kindly New York City police officer played by a gruff-but-kindly actor named Darren McGavin.
The film was art imitating life.
As far back as 1914, the New York Police Department was conducting programs to keep young people out of trouble by channeling their energies into recreational and athletic programs.
Ultimately, that effort became known as the Police Athletic League — PAL— and for nigh on 25 years now, the Manchester Police Department has been offering the same opportunities for Queen City kids.
In its formative years, the Manchester Police Athletic League was literally an academic exercise for founder Dr. Jeffery Czarnec, who spent 23 years with the MPD.
“I was working on my master’s degree in human services administration at Springfield College of Human Services, and rather than doing a thesis, they wanted you to do a project that was community-based,” he says. “Although I was born in Manchester, my father’s job took us to Long Island and I remembered all of the positive interactions I had with police officers in the PAL program when I was growing up, and I thought, ‘Why not here?’”
Officers Steven Duquette and John Levasseur hang out at MPAL with (from left) Ali Fartousi, Jaques Nyinaruta, Michael Correa, an unnamed neighborhood kid and Victoria Williams. Photo by Matthew Lomanno
The “Why nots?” included a city on the economic brink. It was 1991 — five major banks had failed; the real estate, advertising and job markets were in free fall; and the police department was stretched to the max.
“We had a paper and pencil board of directors,” Czarnec explains, “but we landed some key people — Alderman Dan O’Neil, Mike Lopez who was on the Parks and Recreation Commission and Cissy Taylor, who was the police reporter for the Union Leader were among them — and somehow, we got the thumbs up from the Police Commission to start the Manchester Police Athletic League.”
“Given the state of the economy, anything we wanted to do had to be low-cost to no-cost,” he adds, “but even in a good economy, it would be easier to run for Congress than to start a program like this, so we used smoke and mirrors.”
A small gym at the Salvation Army headquarters on Cedar Street in Manchester was home to the first MPAL boxing activity, but even while the kids were trading their first few tentative punches, Czarnec and his core crew — including fellow police officers Bill Cavanaugh and Roland “Red” Robidas — were sharing intelligence with their compatriots on the Nashua Police Department.
“Nashua had a PAL program in place that was modeled on the Boston plan and they were great to us,” Czarnec says. “They said, ‘Come on down!’ They had all this equipment we could use, they talked about how to fundraise and get support from the community — Sanders Associates was on board for them so they were well-positioned financially — and they just said, ‘Here, take our bible.’ It was all of their notes from the very beginning. The thing looked like ‘War and Peace.’”
The pieces were coming together.
“The kids were there. The response was there,” Czarnec says. “We were using Bondo and Band-Aids, but the pieces were holding together. We had a couple of officers who liked boxing, Brian Santos and Jimmy Tareco, so they took that on with Phil Prince. Then Hugh Mallett, one of the civilian workers at the Salvation Army, said he wanted to do a tennis program, so we had a story in the Union Leader asking for used tennis rackets, and we got hundreds of them. We couldn’t believe the response.”
From boxing and tennis to lacrosse and basketball — the hoops program featured a street-baller chief-in-the-making named Enoch Willard — the program offerings grew as fast as the program’s enrollment, which today, stands upwards of 200 kids.
“And all the time, we were talking about the future,” Czarnec says. “We wanted better ways to reach into the projects to involve kids who didn’t have transportation. We hosted hockey tournaments and golf tournaments to raise money to reach more kids because nothing can take the place of officers interacting with kids in a positive environment. We wanted a full-time PAL officer and, more than anything else, we wanted a building.”
They got one.
MPAL training is a system of rewards for good behavior and initiative. A chance to spar in the ring must be earned. Photo by Matthew Lomanno
In 1999, MPAL moved into the building once known as St. Cecilia Hall. For the better part of a century, the vast white structure at the juncture of Beech St. and Lake Ave. on Manchester’s East Side had been the social hub of the French-language St. Augustin Parish (see sidebar).
When he first proposed its construction, parish founder Father Joseph-Augustin Chevalier donated $10,000 of his own money to the cause. He named it St. Cecilia Hall in honor of the patron saint of music. The hall had a grand stage for musical performances and talent shows, a complete kitchen for wedding receptions and holiday gatherings. It even had bowling alleys in the basement.
Today, that basement is where the MPAL boxing team goes through its paces in a community center proudly named for a fallen hero of the Manchester police: Officer Michael Briggs. Such programs would have been unthinkable in 1999, when the building was in serious disrepair.
“The opportunity to acquire the building came when the Diocese of Manchester was looking to sell real estate,” says Dan O’Neil, who spent 20 years on the MPAL board before stepping down in September. “We knew it was going to take a lot to make it compliant on life safety codes, but being in the heart of the center city, it’s in a perfect location for the PAL program.
“By using Community Block Development Grants, we were able to buy the building, and a few months later, to buy the parking lot across the street. It cost somewhere around $300,000,” he adds, “but it probably couldn’t happen today because Congress has reduced funding for the CDBG program.”
Standing proud: Manchester Police Officers John Levasseur and Steven Duquette in front of the MPAL sign at the Officer Michael Briggs Community Center. Photo by Matthew Lomanno
Brian O’Keefe was the officer assigned to oversee the rehabilitation of the building, which brought out the best in Manchester. “If you go back to 1999, Dan O’Neil and I worked with Harvey Construction on every detail of the building. Scott Martinelli was the project manager who put everything together,” O’Keefe says, “but it was the late John Zahr from Harvey Construction who worked with Rob Prunier — he’s now one of the co-owners of the company — to get every subcontractor to cut our costs.” The result? A project that was originally budgeted at $1.1 million, came in at $418,000.
O’Keefe was still there when the building was finally re-opened in 2004, and he was there as the first full-time PAL officer in the history of the Manchester Police. It is a distinction he carries proudly.
“That day, Chief [John] Jaskolka says ‘Welcome to Jeff Czarnec’s dream come true!’ but it was my dream, too,” he says. “Me and a lot of others.”
Officially, O’Keefe held the MPAL post for six years, but he devoted 20 years to the program. He was succeeded by Rich Ell, who held the job for five years. Current director John Levasseur, who doubles as the boxing coach, has been on the job since May.
“When I was passing the reins to Richie, I was calling the office a confessional,” O’Keefe says. “On weekdays, the kids start arriving at the gym right after 2:30, and you never know who’s going to come into the office. One of the misperceptions about the job is that it’s about getting the gym ready for the kids. When you’re there, you’re whatever they need you to be. You’re the father figure, the coach, the mentor, the sounding board, the shrink, the confessor. You’re there for the kids.”
If you go by the book, MPAL serves kids from the ages of 5 through 18, but sometimes, the book is just an outline.
“We don’t turn anyone away,” O’Keefe says. “The age of 18 is when we get what we call ‘lost boys’ — and I know we work with girls as well — but there’s something about the age of 18, maybe you’re graduating from high school, not going to college — it can be a tough age for kids, so we let them come back and serve the younger kids as mentors.”
Michael “Kiki” Rivera can’t do that right now. He can’t because he’s out in California. More specifically, he’s at Camp Pendleton, where the Afghan War veteran is a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. When asked about his first experience with MPAL, there is military precision in his reply.
“It was Sept. 24, 2004,” he says. “It was the day my grandmother died.”
He was just 14 years old, but he made a wise decision.
“I was really devastated and I thought I needed some kind of release, so I went to PAL and Brian O’Keefe welcomed me with open arms,” he says. “I grew up in Puerto Rico and life was pretty tough for me when I came to the States. I was always a hot-head, but once I got to PAL, Brian was the father figure I never had.”
Those are the stories David Mara likes to hear. He stepped down from his role as Chief of Police earlier this year, but by no means is he relinquishing his role with MPAL. Quite the contrary.
“John Jaskolka had a full-time cop here, I had a full-time cop here and I’m sure Nick Willard will keep one here as well,” he says. “This place is a sanctuary, and every day, kids are in here having positive interactions with police officers.
“Our current PAL officer, John Levasseur, is a great example. I’d see him in here working out when he had a job doing chimney maintenance. Then he got a job in corrections, then he got on the force in Dunbarton, and when I ran into him at a conference on domestic violence, I said, ‘I want you in Manchester.’”
“When you see him working with the kids, when you see the connection he had with them, I just knew I wanted him here.”
So the kids get to do boxing workouts with John Levasseur. They do aikido with Sensei Michael Hovan and judo with Robert Proska, and they do it all under the watchful eyes of the countless police officers who donate their time to MPAL.
Cops and kids. The formula works to this very day.
Coming Soon: A New Beginning
An organization that hands out tiny miracles on a daily basis surely deserves its own big miracle at some point. Thanks to a unique New Hampshire-based program, MPAL is preparing to get one.
For a quarter century the Manchester Police Athletic League has served a diverse group of inner-city kids — most of them from homes that might be called dysfunctional or marginal — by providing a place to punch a bag, practice judo on a mat, find some homework assistance or just benefit from one-on-one coaching and advice. It’s hard to say how many lives have been changed by this forging of positive bonds between disadvantaged young people and officers of the law, but if you ask the kids, you’ll know that MPAL brings understanding and hope to places where both are in short supply.
Now their mission will be helped by a remarkable gift. The community partnership program Building on Hope has selected the Michael Briggs Community Center, home of the MPAL program, to receive an “Extreme Makeover”-style remodeling effort in the spring of 2016.
This is the fourth such project by Building on Hope with previous results each valued between $250,000 and $500,000. The 2016 effort will require in excess of a million dollars to transform the aging facility and open the doors to more kids and even better programs. Interested in helping? You can donate via GoFundMe. The publicity that is expected in the coming year will also take what’s been happening quietly in an old Queen City rec hall on Beech Street and share it with the world.
In spite of the recent tensions between police and their communities, cops helping kids is a formula that has changed thousands of lives for the better and made the world a safer, stronger place for decades. There’s no finer example of this miracle than right here in New Hampshire. Donations of money, materials, time and expertise are currently being sought.
It seems like a huge undertaking, but past experience of Building on Hope has proven their motto: “Many hands make light work.”