Staff Q&A / Cassandra Parks - DeVaughn

Cassandra Parks-DeVaughn, Penn police officer  Photo credit: Peter Tobia

March Madness rages on in April at the Palestra.

Philadelphia’s Police Athletic League (PAL) is scheduled to hold its citywide basketball tournament championship games at Penn’s venerable gym on April 13 and 14. Around 1,500 kids will take part in the games, being held at Penn for what is at least the 10th-straight year. Six divisions of boys and girls teams, ranging in age from 8 to 18, will compete in the tournament (there are PAL teams with 6- to 8-year-olds, but they don’t play at the Palestra because the court is too big).

Penn Division of Public Safety Police Officer Cassandra Parks-DeVaughn has been the University’s PAL officer for seven years. A big part of her job is to lead the basketball team at the Tucker Center in West Philadelphia (each of the 26 PAL facilities are named for a Philadelphia police officer), and while her team didn’t make it to the finals this season, Parks-DeVaughn will nonetheless be in what’s known as the “Cathedral of College Basketball” to root on the rest of the participants.

The Current spoke with the West Philly native about the forthcoming basketball tournament, her role as Penn’s PAL officer and mentor to many neighborhood children and the positive influence the athletic organization is making on kids throughout the city.

Q. Tell me a little bit about the Police Athletic League.
A.
There are 26 centers and they are all run by police officers. They have volunteers, also, and a couple of paid staff. The kids range from the ages of 6 to 18 years old. They’re from all throughout the city.

Q. How did you get involved?
A.
Through my position as a police officer at Penn. The position came up and I applied for it. I went to a couple of interviews with the University of Pennsylvania [Division of] Public Safety and also with PAL. I’ve been on board now for close to seven years.

Q. Why do you think you landed the job?
A.
I think I reach a little bit out of the box. My passions are horseback riding, and I’m big on tennis. Not the typical basketball or other sports. I have a passion for education. I have even taken a couple of courses at Penn. I’ve had my own construction company, so I know how to use my resources.

Q. What does the job entail?
A.
I run Tucker PAL, it’s on 46th and Woodland in the University of Pennsylvania community. I’m a mentor for all the kids in the area that come through the center. We start off our day with homework, reading and computer tutoring. It’s about two hours at the beginning of our day when the kids get out of school.
I’m the coach of PAL citywide cheerleaders, so I do that on Mondays. Tuesdays, my days are basketball for the males and females. Wednesday is my Boys to Men program for the boys and Positive Images for the girls. We try to give them options and address different issues that are going on in their lives. Thursday is also my day for the senior cheerleaders. Fridays, a lot of times they start off with homework and tutoring and then to show them how much we appreciate them, we go bowling.

Q. Who goes to PAL centers?
A.
Community kids. Even though we are located at the University of Pennsylvania, most of the PAL centers are in low-income areas. The kids that would be hanging out in the street are the ones that frequent the centers. At PAL, they know they will be safe and it’s a place where kids can be kids. We have a core group of about 40 of 50.

Q. What’s the format of the basketball tournament?
A.
We’re going to start off on the 12th with 10-and-under boys and girls, and 15-and-under young ladies. On the 13th, we’ll have boys’ teams 12-and-under, 14-and-under and 16-and-under.
There are about 1,500 kids in the in-house league. We break it down so each PAL center takes their cream of the crop and enters them into the tournament. When each division has two remaining teams, they play in the final.

Q. What’s the atmosphere like?
A.
It’s pretty nice. At times it’s really exciting because you have all the kids that have played in the tournament there and they get a chance to see the team that has beat them. We make it pretty entertaining. We have the cheerleaders from all over the city. They perform between the games. This year we’re going to have the PAL dance group. There usually are one or two speakers talking about education and so forth.

Q. Why is basketball an effective way to make a difference in kids’ lives?
A.
I think it’s a sport that involves a lot of people. You do have to communicate with each other and all you really need is a ball. It’s a cheap sport, but it brings a lot of people together.
You have kids that play basketball year-round, and when my center is locked, they’re playing outside in the schoolyard. If they don’t have a rim, they’re playing with crates with the bottom cut out.

Q. How did you become interested in law enforcement?
A.
I used to work for SEPTA as a [bus] driver. I came in contact with a lot of different people in a lot of different situations. My fiancée brought an ad to my attention. I’m a very versatile person, so he said, ‘This sounds like something that wouldn’t bore you.’ I took the test, they interviewed me and I’ve been here for 13 years.

Q. What’s kept you at Penn that long?
A.
The versatility in the department. I came in as a regular officer on the street, then I went to the bike, I did rape defense, I did defensive tactics instruction. Now, I’m part of PAL. Twice a month I still go and do training.

Q. What’s rewarding about the PAL position?
A.
I have this one kid, when I started this year he was new. He didn’t know how to read and he was very bad at adding, so he couldn’t keep his concentration and study with the other kids. I would pull him in my office and tutor him myself. Today he loves reading and he says he ‘loves being smart.’
I’ve been here long enough now that I have kids that have graduated from high school and have graduated from college. I have just recently received an invitation to a wedding. It’s very fulfilling.
You can change somebody’s life by sharing your experiences with them and using the resources the University of Pennsylvania gives me. You look at their faces and it’s like, ‘Wow.’

Originally published on April 8, 2010