By JOSH BROKAW
he power of hoops to bring people together showed itself last Saturday at the initial Bridging the Gap event, an initiative to increase respect and understanding between authority figures and area youth.
About 15 state troopers and Williamsport firemen and 15 secondary-level students played basketball together at the First United Methodist Church gym for a few hours.
Organizers of Bridging the Gap want to run the event several times a year - whether the occasion for getting together be basketball, other sports or other opportunities for area law enforcement and young people to work and play together.
"This was just the beginning, just to get the feel of each other," said Ronald Johnson, one of the event organizers. "We're trying to prevent situations like that happened last year at Flanigan Park (a shooting that left one dead). With The (Campbell Street) Center closed, kids have nowhere to go now, and that's asking for trouble. We came up with the idea of getting law enforcement to come and have some time with these kids."
Mutual distrust between law enforcement and local youth is a problem, Johnson says.
"The program is to get them all together and have group discussions, getting everybody to know everyone is a human being. Day to day, people do have bad days and good days. Most of these kids are inner city, and they can learn when things do happen in the neighborhood to talk and communicate with (police)."
Sean Walker, another event organizer, says that Bridging the Gap is a concept that fills a need here.
"When I came up in Williamsport as a young man, we had an abundance of programs like this one. Now, youth don't want to talk to cops, the cops don't want to talk to youth. There's a big gap that was missing. We had the cops that got out of cars, introduced themselves, and bonded with community, and kids would want to know what it was like to be a cop. That's been missing for some time."
Bridging the Gap will return the city to a mind set where everyone works together, Walker hopes.
"Hopefully this can start rectifying everything to where there's not a gap, where we're one single unit that comes together and makes everybody's job easier. Lately it seems like Williamsport has forgotten the future a little bit. We have to look at what youth can do, what the future can be for the city of Williamsport, what it can be with help of the police, the fire department and other agencies.
"The purpose of the first one was to interact. There's no interaction anymore. ... To ease the tension, so to speak. In the fall, there will be more testimonies," Walker said, alluding to his own experience of growing up in the city.
Lt. Todd Weltman, of Pennsylvania State Police Troop F in Montoursville, said he thinks his "troopers are really looking forward to more meetings."
"We're going to continue these Bridging the Gap meetings and games throughout the summer. At the beginning we're just there for fellowship with them, to answer any questions they could ask. I think we'll have a better conversation once we get to know each other a little bit."
Future events might include a softball game, volleyball, jump rope and anything else the participants might want to try, Johnson said.
"We don't want to leave the young ladies out, but we want to focus just a little bit more on the boys, since they get in more trouble. We want people to know who might be thinking 'what the heck's going to happen this summer?' that there are officers out there that do care. I believe all law enforcement does care."
Johnson and Walker say that they want to see more churches and more people from local law enforcement involved in their ministry.
"When I was growing up, if anything was going on in the neighborhood, people from the church were right there," Johnson said. "The church was always on the front line - not that it's not now, but we're trying to get it more involved."
Those who want more information on Bridging the Gap can call Johnson at 974-8681 or Walker at 505-2505.