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Police can do more than enforce the law

By Randy Wright (China Daily) Updated: 2017-09-08 09:03

"With nowhere else to go, he fights".

That was the headline two weeks ago, when I wrote about Derek, a 15-year-old orphan from Guangdong province who wants to be a mixed martial arts champion.

He lived alone in a rough neighborhood, with barely enough money to buy food. He would fight in underground clubs whenever he could. Recently, he was dangerously knocked out by an older, stronger opponent.

Such fights are illegal, I've been told. Derek told me about the gamblers, the raucous crowds, the booze and the bikini-clad girls who prance around and fawn over the fight winners. Yet he views the octagon as a temple. He sees it as his ticket to a better life.

In China and elsewhere, there are many at-risk youths like Derek - kids at the margins of society with little to live for. Hopelessness can lead them into criminal gangs, drugs, prostitution, violence, prison and even suicide. Derek himself carries the scars of self-inflicted knife wounds from the time he tried to take his own life and failed.

Bottom line: When there's nowhere else to go, it's easy to go nowhere.

The vicious cycle can only be broken by caring people. In the United States, it's police departments that have taken the lead with at-risk youth. As society's first line of defense, officers see firsthand the problems of people like Derek. At hundreds of Police Athletic League centers in every US state, officers volunteer to mentor kids and point them in a positive direction.

The league was founded in 1914 by a visionary police captain, John Sweeney, in New York City's poverty-stricken Lower East Side. The idea was to give youth a place to go and to help them build character through athletics. Today there's hardly a city of any size in the US that doesn't have a PAL affiliate or similar program. Millions of kids' lives have changed for the better.

Some PALs offer boxing and martial arts training, which would appeal to Derek. But that hardly scratches the surface of what they do. The national PAL association lists well over 100 activities for youth - a long lineup of sports, to be sure, but also training in life skills, the arts and academics; from cooking to computers, pottery to theater - all provided free of charge. Adult volunteers from all walks of life are welcome. In some places, police officers even help kids with their homework.

The PAL mission remains unchanged after more than a century: to keep young people out of trouble by channeling their energies into constructive pursuits.

The personal relationships with police officers are crucial. Experience in the US shows that when the officers are known and respected, respect follows for the laws they enforce. That's worth a serious look.

An old slogan rings true: It's better to build a boy than to mend a man.

Update: Since my last column, Derek was offered a home by a caring family. He's getting regular meals. He has started school. I convinced him to go to bed at 9 pm and rise at 5 am.

"How do you feel now?" I asked. He answered: "Rebirth."

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