A summer program that turns the Florida Keys into a laboratory of culture, history, nature and plain old fun for youngsters may be canceled this year if parents and officials don't raise $9,000 in about a week.
The Police Athletic League summer camp needs the money to pay the insurance for city-owned vans it uses to transport children to locations such as Fort Zachary Taylor and the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key.
Police community relations officer Steve Torrence said he is confident the community will get behind the PAL effort.
"We are going to be able to get through this," Torrence said of the summer camp program, which is at least 17 years old. "People are going to come and help us out. But we have to act now. We have to get all our insurances. We have a waiting list of over 100 kids and we are getting down to either we are going to have the camp or not."
PAL had free use of the vans for years, until a Bahama Village basketball group was denied the same use of city goods and services because of the city's liability. City Attorney Shawn Smith investigated questions about favoritism and advised police to stop letting PAL use the vans, which resulted in outcry from parents and youngsters who had been looking forward to this year's program.
The City Commission on Tuesday passed a resolution allowing use of the vans as long as PAL pays the liability insurance. Commissioners, even those who questioned the practice, said they want to see the camp continue and will do what they can to support the fundraising efforts.
"We don't have a whole lot of other programs," said Commissioner Clayton Lopez, whose grandchildren have participated in PAL programs.
Commissioner Tony Yaniz said he would put up $500 of his own money.
"It creates an aura of respect and trust, not just from the youth to the police, but also from the police to the youth," Yaniz said Wednesday. "Whatever money gets invested in that program pays dividends tenfold. And it is clear that if they don't have this in place in four days they can't have the summer camp."
Tow truck company owner Ricky Arnold, who was at the meeting to discuss potential changes to the city's towing ordinances, pledged $1,000 from his pocket.
There are a few things about the PAL camp program Lopez and some other community leaders said they would like to see changed, most notably ways to make it more available to more kids across the economic spectrum. The PAL camp costs $25 per week per child, which not all families can afford.
"They incur costs and that is understandable," Lopez said.
Torrence estimates that about 45 youngsters per week are involved in the program. Some sign up for only a week, others for the entire seven weeks.
PAL activities nationwide involve different levels of official sponsorship or involvement, although many maintain their own separate 501(c)3 status, as in Key West.
Alyson Crean, spokeswoman for the city and Police Department, noted that in a more direct way than other programs, PAL has a link to the goals of a police organization by the relationships it fosters between youngsters and officers, as a potential recruiting tool, and overall from the aspect of community relations.
The organizations nationwide, as in Key West, have also undergone significant changes. While the focus at PAL has in the past included boxing and other competitive sports, many PAL programs now offer a wider range of activities such as the Key West summer camps.
The issue has prompted the city to explore its relationship with all nonprofits, to determine if policy changes about using city goods and services are needed.
"We have been asked to explore and find out just what the range of options are, what the liabilities would be insurance-wise," Crean said. "There is a possibility that other organizations within the city could be requesting the same thing, and the staff has been asked to look at the full range, the feasibility should these requests come forward."