School’s back in session, but when kids put their pencils down, two local youth programs are ready with outlets for fun, creativity and competition.

Staffed by volunteers, the West Volusia Police Athletic League and the DeLand Dawgs aim to teach life skills and give local youth a sense of community and camaraderie.

Pals with police

The West Volusia Police Athletic League, aka PAL, has been full speed ahead this year with a slew of youth-oriented programs. PAL, at 420 S. Delaware Ave., is a nonprofit organization run in part by the DeLand Police Department.

PAL has morphed over the years, at one point going dormant, and at another deciding to hand off football to the DeLand Dawgs. Now PAL is back at full strength, with a new lineup.

Willie Johnson has been director since 2019, and has introduced a series of unconventional programs to complement more traditional activities like basketball, boxing and weight-training.

Among them: photography classes taught by two crime-scene photographers, an eight-week fishing program, bicycle rides where children are also taught how to fix flat tires and oil their chains, and an upcoming cooking program that will be taught by local chefs.

“I don’t want to do what everybody else is doing,” Johnson said. “I try to stay out of everybody else’s lane by doing stuff that I think is fun and exciting.”

It wouldn’t be possible without community support, he said.

“We’ve had tremendous support from the community,” Johnson said. “Funding comes from everywhere — sometimes from some of the most unlikely sources.”

For instance, the bicycle program was made possible by donations from Walmart, which donated bicycles that customers had returned to the store. The bicycles were repaired for free by JC’s Bikes & Boards on South Woodland Boulevard.

“It turned out great. We had 22 bikes, and at the end of the program, after that bike ride, the kids got to keep those bikes. Those bikes went home with them,” Johnson said.

LET’S RIDE — Dozens of youngsters are ready to ride the Beresford Trail from Beresford Lake Park in DeLand to Blue Spring State Park in Orange City Aug. 14, under the watchful eye of volunteers with the West Volusia Police Athletic League. PAL Director Willie Johnson speaks to the group before they take off on their 5.8-mile journey. The youngsters ranged in ability from very skilled to still on training wheels.

For the annual Mayor’s Backpack Giveaway, Johnson used a $500 donation to buy shoes from a Nike outlet to give away to children. When he told the store what he was up to, they supplied additional shoes, and PAL ultimately was able to hand out more than 80 pairs.

Johnson is the only actual employee at PAL — the other coaches, staff, and parent chaperones are all volunteers. DeLand police officers and their families also give of their time.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Johnson said.

Registration for the PAL program costs $25 for DeLand residents, and $35 for nonresidents. The registration fee covers all the programs over the entire year.

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DeLand Dawgs

The DeLand Dawgs youth football league kicked off its season this month with a jamboree game in Winter Haven. DeLand Dawgs President and coach R.J. Simpson said he’s looking forward to the new season.

The DeLand Dawgs, which serves 195 kids ages 5-14, includes football players and cheerleaders.

While the young people were gathered at Spec Martin Memorial Stadium for group photos Aug. 13, The Beacon asked the assembled crowd whether they were excited about the new season.

MOVE THIS WAY —DeLand Dawgs President R.J. Simpson organizes dozens of children for group photos Aug. 13 at Spec Martin Memorial Stadium in DeLand. A total of 195 West Volusia youngsters are involved, enrolled in programs that include football and cheerleading.

Most of the kids responded with cheers of “Yes!” while some responded “No!” seemingly not because they aren’t excited, but because, well, kids will be kids.

This year, the players and cheerleaders are sporting brand-new “swag,” Simpson said, in the form of new black-and-green uniforms.

Whitney Miller is one of the many parents who help organize events and keep the DeLand Dawgs playing. She has three children in the group — two football players and a cheerleader — and she loves what the Dawgs do for the community.

“It means a lot to the kids,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of kids who may have problems at home, but when they get to football, they just get to be kids.”

One kid excited to play football this season is King Andre Murry. King Andre, 8 years old, is joining the DeLand Dawgs after watching his brother play the position of wide receiver.

King Andre planned to be a boxer, he told The Beacon, but now his sights are set on football.

The Dawgs will play their first home game against the Osceola Kowboys at 9 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 21, at the Sperling Sports Complex, 1300 Matt Fair Blvd. in DeLand.

Tickets cost $7 for adults and $5 for kids age 5 and younger.

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