This is the third in a series of profiles of people who have quietly made significant contributions to our community. If you know of such a person, please contact Ann Weber at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6126.
Sgt. Tom Youngs has worked street patrol, vice squad, and missing persons, among other places in the Toledo Police Department, but he says the job he has now has been the hardest.
"You're a father to 50 or 60 kids," explains the 57-year-old officer who since 2001 has headed the Toledo Lucas County Police Athletic League, a delinquency-prevention program whose motto is "Filling Playgrounds, Not Prisons."
And there's no job description that quite covers parenthood, as any mother or father comes to realize. It means knowing when to give advice and when to shut up, when to tighten the reins and when to loosen your grip, being disappointed at times and nicely surprised at others, fighting with frustration and bursting with pride.
"I just love the kids here. They're great kids," Sergeant Youngs says — a comment that shows some growth on his part too.
That's because, as he admits, he wasn't enthusiastic when police Chief Mike Navarre assigned him to run PAL. But the woman he was replacing in the job told him this: You just wait. These kids will grow on you.
"And they did," the sergeant confesses.
So much so that attorney Alan Konop, president of the PAL board, calls Sergeant Youngs "the heart and soul of the Police Athletic League."
"He takes a very personal interest in helping the development of the young people who come through the program. He wants to help make a difference in their lives," Mr. Konop says.
Sergeant Youngs likes to tell success stories about his young diamonds in the rough — kids with poor grades, terrible attitudes, criminal records, and tragic family circumstances. Given time, direction, and encouragement, the nice kid emerges, sometimes two steps forward, one step back.
"I see a lot of failures too," he concedes. "There's ones that you just can't help."
Affiliated with state and national PAL programs, the local organization runs athletic and recreation programs, special interest classes, and summer field trips.
In 2009, a total of 972 children participated in PAL, most of them from the city's low-income neighborhoods although it's open to any child in Lucas County. PAL is primarily self-supporting, with Sergeant Youngs' salary the city's only expense.
In light of Toledo's severe budget crunch, Chief Navarre said it's possible the sergeant will be asked to pick up some additional police department duties, "but I don't think the program is in danger."
PAL's offerings have expanded under Sergeant Youngs' watch, thanks in large part to his prowess as a fund-raiser.
"What makes him so successful is he has a lot of people skills," says Chief Navarre, citing Sergeant Youngs' record of recruiting powerful, well-connected people as board members and donors.
"Their first golf tournament raised almost $100,000. That's unheard of," says the chief, himself a former PAL basketball coach.
"PAL is such a great thing, and it really takes dedicated people, and Tom is such a fine example," Chief Navarre continues. "He's developed a passion for it."
Girls' volleyball and scale modeling for boys and girls both were offered for the first time in fall, 2008. A cooking class also started in 2008, but its future is uncertain because it's expensive. Sewing classes started last year, taught by volunteer Margaret Youngs, the sergeant's wife. (Their daughters also have been PAL volunteers. Mary Youngs is now working on a master's degree in counseling; her sister Barbara is in law school.)
Some PAL activities run year-round, such as boxing, while others are seasonal, including dodgeball and baseball. About 30 to 40 boys and girls, in fifth grade through high school, are currently active in the boxing program.
They begin drifting in around 3:30 p.m. at PAL headquarters in the former Leverette Junior High School on East Manhattan Boulevard, also currently an interim location for Riverside School.
The kids in programs that run during the school year are required to put in an hour of study time. In the case of boxing, it's 4 to 5 p.m., when they can head to the gym for practice. That hour is non-negotiable: If they're late arriving, they'll be that late getting to the gym. If they don't maintain decent grades, they won't be allowed in the ring — although they're welcome to come to the gym and work out.
The mix of support, encouragement, discipline, and consequences reflects Sergeant Youngs' no-nonsense approach to the kids in the program, and perhaps his nature as well.
"I'm on them all the time about stuff," he says. If a teacher calls him to say a child has a bad attitude or isn't doing what's expected, "I get on them. I tell them, ‘You're part of our program. You don't do that.'"
Yes, he wants them to excel athletically, but that's not what PAL is about, he declares. "It's about respect and education."
"When they come in, I tell them right off the bat: ‘This is the way I am. I'm going to tell you exactly what I think. You have to understand what this program is about.' I'm straightforward with them. I have to be."
Sergeant Youngs, a native of Celina, Ohio, found his direction early in life. "I wanted to be a policeman since I was 8 years old," he says.
His inspiration was a favorite uncle who was a deputy sheriff in Ohio's Mercer County. "He was just a cool guy and I looked up to him," Sergeant Youngs remembers.
Another reason he was drawn to law enforcement, he says, is that "I enjoy helping people."
He laughs and shakes his head. "People would never expect that of me, believe me."
"I just don't show that side of me to anybody," Sergeant Youngs says.
"There's a lot of policemen like me," he points out. Tough people with hearts of gold and all that.
Sergeant Youngs came to Toledo after he got out of the Army in 1973.
He enrolled at the University of Toledo's former Community and Technical College in a "two-plus-two" program that started with an associate degree as a lead-in to the baccalaureate program.
He got the associate degree but never the bachelor's. He had signed up for classes but had to cancel them when work intervened — an afternoon shift for TPD, which he joined in July, 1977. Sergeant Youngs climbed into the police cruiser and didn't look back.
He expects to retire sometime within a year. Meanwhile, his work with the PAL kids makes him happy.
"It's about keeping them out of jail, keeping them out of trouble, showing them what's right and what's wrong. It does a lot for me.
"I know how hard it's been with some of these kids, and then all of the sudden you see something, and you're like, ‘Oh my God, this is awesome.' I see that it works. What we're doing works," he asserts.
"We can't save the whole world, but if we save one, I'm happy. And I've seen quite a few."
Contact Ann Weber at: email@example.com