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A lesson no kid needs to learn

Hard, honest labor to attain a worthy goal: That's what the St. Petersburg PAL was trying to teach the young athletes bound for the national championships. Then the unthinkable happened.

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 18, 2002

The news came to me with neither outrage nor anger, just a bit of incredulity in the caller's voice.

Eighty-four young athletes had battled their way through local, regional and state basketball competition to earn the right to travel to Cincinnati on Saturday to compete in the Police Athletic League national championships.

While not all the teams had won first place as judged by the scores at the end of games, they were winners in more important columns: character, sportsmanship, teamwork.

They were judged not only on their athletic prowess, but on how well they competed. Such a qualifying process would immediately eliminate many of today's top athletes, who have become accustomed to the world excusing their barbaric behavior because they can evade tacklers or maneuver a ball through a hoop, fairly meaningless skills in the overall scheme of things.

PAL sports programs aim more at building character than filling National Football League rosters.

The St. Petersburg PAL got a little more character training than it expected as it tried to raise funds to send its 10- to 16-year-olds to Cincinnati. The children, their parents and supporters hustled to raise money for their trip. They washed cars, sold doughnuts and spaghetti dinners and asked corporations for help.

But the largest chunk -- roughly $30,000 of the $55,000 they would need -- was to come from their participation in a three-day outdoor festival called Bay Fest.

They scrambled to get volunteers and licenses so they could staff the Budweiser concession. About 350 volunteers answered the call.

Things turned out even better than expected. They pumped $138,000 worth of beer, earning nearly $35,000 for the trip (their share was 25 per cent of the total sales). Their hard work, it seemed, had paid off. The trip was in the bag.

Bay Fest ended May 5.

The trip is next week.

They are still waiting to receive their $35,000.

So far, all the St. Petersburg PAL kids have collected is a bill for $15,000 from the beer distributor who supplied the beer, a cost they were not supposed to pay.

My caller's information was second-hand, so I called several PAL officials to confirm her account. The story only became more incredible.

The problem is that SC Marketing and Events, the Orlando-based company that promoted the festival, is having "financial issues," said Sally Tietz, who coordinated PAL's participation in the event.

"They can't even guarantee we'll ever get the money," she said.

Chris Cantwell, SCME's president, did not return calls for comment left on his office and cell phones.

Tietz said she has called Cantwell every five or six days since the event and has often experienced difficulty contacting him. She said he told her his company overspent on the inaugural edition of Bay Fest, projected to be an annual event, which featured an impressive lineup of marquee performers across a variety of musical tastes.

"He said they went over budget; there is no money," she said.

Last week, Tietz was still hopeful the money will come through. "I tend to be gullible," she said. "I like to see the best in everybody."

That vision extends to the distributor, Great Bay, which is not pressuring the organization for payment. "The distributor is being very cooperative, very understanding, very nice people," Tietz said.

She still is even holding out hope that SCME will honor its obligations.

"Everybody just gave their heart and soul to make it happen successfully. It would be awesome if the money came through," she said. "It would definitely be easier if we had the money when we got there."

Tietz said the trip will be paid for, but PAL will probably have to use money earmarked for other programs.

She said at this point she doesn't know what actions PAL can or will take to try to collect from SCME: The organization has been preoccupied with making sure young people who are learning values that will keep them out of trouble for a lifetime are not deprived of a weeklong trip they earned with hard, honest work.

In a world in which it's increasingly hard to do, St. Petersburg's PAL is trying to teach its kids that good guys don't finish last.

Unfortunately, including the beer tab Cantwell has so far left the organization stuck with, the lesson could cost around $50,000.

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