Voices of Youth: Detroit PAL teens share surprising thoughts on life during COVID-19, BLM protests

For Caidon Haliburton, a 16-year-old West Bloomfield High student-athlete, 2020 hasn't exactly turned out how he expected. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, he's been sheltering-in-place with his parents in Southfield since March. And as a high school athlete who hasn't been playing football, he's concerned about his college recruiting prospects.


"It's really put me in a box," he says. "For some schools, the last thing they may see would be [my performance in] January or February. And they won't be able to see what else I can do until at least August or September, and possibly then only for a limited amount of time."

Caidon Haliburton

While Haliburton has had two scholarship offers, he's had to make virtual visits to college, limiting his chances to make lasting impressions with recruiters.


Despite these challenges, there’s been an upside to staying at home. The teenager likes having more time for self-reflection and hanging out with his family. Although he hasn't been going to school, he has been keeping busy with online schoolwork, home workouts, and his efforts with the Detroit Police Athletic League (PAL).


Founded in 1969, Detroit PAL is a nonprofit organization supported by local police that offers sports and other youth programming. Before the outbreak of COVID-19, the nonprofit served over 13,000 area youth and had over 1,500 volunteers. Due to the pandemic, however, most sports and activities are on hold, and the nonprofit is asking for financial assistance from the community.


While much of Detroit PAL's programming has been suspended due to the pandemic, the organization is carefully working to bring back its sports activities based on best practices and recommendations from groups like the CDC and The Aspen Institute. It plans to start by bringing back low-contact sports like golf, tennis, and e-gaming, while strictly following social distancing guidelines.


Haliburton has been involved with Detroit PAL for many years, first through football and baseball and more recently as a youth leader. In 2017 he was chosen to be Detroit PAL's youth ambassador and currently serves as the president of its Youth Voice Council.


"As president, I'm running meetings, organizing events, and doing things almost like I'm on a board of executives," he says. "It's given me an edge that many kids wouldn’t be able to have."


Supporting youth


While the Council is now operating in a limited capacity, due to COVID-19, members have been developing ideas for the future. In doing this work, Haliburton is thankful to have the assistance of Detroit Police Officer Marcus Norwood, who works as a youth development officer with Detroit PAL. Even during the pandemic, the two of them have stayed in touch remotely to talk about ideas for the organization and Haliburton's future.


"I feel that Officer Norwood really personifies what Detroit PAL is about!" says Haliburton. "He understands that youth development comes from individual youth."


A member of Detroit's police force since 1989, Norwood has coached baseball with Detroit PAL since 1990. DPD officially assigned him to work with the organization in 2004. With fellow officers, Norwood also runs summer day camps for first through eighth graders and assists with sports journalism classes.


Beyond that, he played a role in creating and implementing the Team Up program. Launched about five years ago, Team Up offers a way for officers to connect with youth outside of sports and serves approximately 400 kids a year.


Mentorship is a central part of Detroit PAL's work, allowing caring adults to be a part of young people's lives while providing extra support for parents. Through the organization, mentors help youth build up skills and character, connect them with opportunities, and offer positive role models for community engagement.


During the pandemic, Detroit PAL mentors have been surveying youth about their most urgent needs and staying connected through social media fitness challenges, virtual reading sessions, and live interactive art sessions.


For mentors like Norwood, working with youth can be quite rewarding.


"I was a PAL kid myself, so it makes me laugh now that I’m on the other end," he says. "It feels great when I see someone that I used to coach/mentor graduate from high school or even college to become a productive citizen as an adult."


Reflecting on uncertainty


Farmington High student Caprice Johnson got involved with Detroit PAL's sports journalism program at the recommendation of Norwood, a family friend.


The 17-year-old, who lives with her mother, aunt, and several siblings in Farmington Hills, used to love going to Detroit PAL events to interview youth athletes and cheerleaders. But COVID-19 has put a freeze on that and other activities she used to enjoy.


"The shutdown has been stressful for me," she says. "I haven't been able to go to PAL and interact with the kids. It also impacts my track season, my junior season, which I think is the most important season."


While her high school track meets have been canceled, Johnson has been going to track practice. But she has been careful to practice social distancing.


As for classwork, homeschooling has been a challenge. Johnson is concerned she's not learning at the pace she should be. And she's apprehensive about her options for college.


"Online college doesn’t seem like a route I want to go on," she says. "And it's like, 'Whoa! It's going to be tough for me to stay at college [due to COVID-19]."


As for the state opening back up, Johnson wouldn't mind if people waited a little bit more.


"I don’t think restaurants should be opening. The malls shouldn't be opening,” she says. "I don’t like how some people don’t listen to social distancing, because that’s how this can go on for longer."


Thinking about the future


Lea Caldwell is another Detroit PAL youth whom Norwood has been mentoring. A 17-year-old student who lives on Detroit's east side and attends Mercy High School in Farmington Hills, Caldwell first got involved with Detroit PAL in 2015 through cheerleading. Later she enrolled in its journalism program. The teen is also a former youth ambassador and serves on the Youth Voice Council.


The pandemic has been a challenging time for Caldwell. Her father caught COVID-19 earlier this year and some neighbors died of the disease. The teenager also misses her friends and is frustrated by how the pandemic has impacted her junior year and efforts to prepare for college.


"COVID-19 is really affecting my everyday life and school life," she says. "But I’m very grateful that our governor removed us from the situation as soon as possible, because this could have been a lot worse."


To stay occupied, Caldwell has been reading, writing, taking a lot of walks, and staying connected to her friends through social media. While she is keeping busy, it cheers her up that things are starting to open up again.


"It's great, because I know we're not going to be in quarantine forever," she says. "Businesses are starting to come back and people are starting to congregate a little bit more."


During the pandemic, Caldwell has been keeping up with her Youth Voice Council work and staying in touch with Norwood via text. She hopes to meet up in person with him when life gets back to normal to talk about her plans for the future. After all, participating in Detroit PAL led her to discover journalism, a career field she is intent on pursuing.


"Detroit PAL has helped me shape my leadership abilities," says Caldwell. "It’s helped me find my passion. It’s helped build character. And that’s a lot."


Tragedy and protest


In addition to the pandemic, many of today's teens are struggling to make sense of the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25 and the civil unrest and Black Lives Matter protests that have followed. Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, died after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes while other officers looked on. The airing of the video showing Floyd's death has sparked massive demonstrations all over the country.


Acknowledging the anger many people in the United States are feeling right now, he thinks his work with Detroit PAL is now more important than ever.


"Given our country’s current climate between police and civilians, I think it’s even more crucial that [young people] see police officers in a positive role," he says. "This view can be contradictory to what they hear and see on television."


So what do Caldwell, Johnson and Haliburton, as youth involved with Detroit's Police Athletic League, think about Floyd's death and the demonstrations that have followed?


In Haliburton's eyes, Floyd died an "unjust and unnecessary" death. But he doesn’t agree with how some have responded to it.


"While I stand in solidarity with those who earnestly protest the wrongs in society,” he says, "I do not support the anarchists. I do support not the looters. I do not support crime for the sake of justice."


The teenager is also supportive of how Michigan police have done their job "upkeeping the law and honoring peaceful protests."


For Johnson, even though she's well aware of the existence of police brutality, it's been difficult to watch the media coverage.


"To me, being a black girl, it was upsetting because I have black brothers. And being on social media every single day seeing this, I don't like to see it happening at all."


Caldwell also finds reports of Floyd's death and the demonstrations around the country difficult to process.


"It’s heartbreaking," she says. "I literally don’t want to watch the news anymore, because it literally went from COVID to protests. And government officials, I’m not going to say his name, like 45 (President Trump), are not taking it seriously."


While there are officers like Norwood, whom she considers to be caring, upstanding people, Caldwell doesn't believe that's the case for everyone who carries a badge.


"Not all police officers are good," she says. "So when a police officer sees another police officer violating the rules to use violence against another person, to me, that’s just as bad as the police officer initiating it."


While watching everything that's happening in the wake of Floyd's death has been challenging for Caldwell, she is optimistic that the situation will eventually improve.

"This is our country that was built on the fundamentals of liberty and the pursuit of happiness," she says. "It doesn't add up to me, but I know that freedom does ring, and eventually we will overcome!"

Voices of Youth is a series that will capture the youth perspective and narrative during the COVID-19 response to recovery. It is made possible with funding from the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan.


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Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.