KNPE professors, grad student launch Project FLEX inside Illinois Youth Center

Zach Wahl-Alexander, Tim Mack and Jenn Jacobs
Zach Wahl-Alexander, Tim Mack and Jenn Jacobs

Opened in December 1904, the 120-acre Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles can hold 348 juvenile males in its Level 2 medium-security facility.

The average daily population of 138 represents about 40 percent of that capacity. The average age is 17. Those who need or want to complete eighth-grade or high school can take all of the classes necessary; services offered also include tutoring and academic credit recovery.

And, thanks to the NIU Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, a select group can now join a fitness leadership program.

KNPE professors Jenn Jacobs and Zach Wahl-Alexander officially launched their new program Monday after months of collaboration and planning with the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice and the NIU Institutional Review Board.

Called Project FLEX – Fitness Leadership Experience – the initiative aims to not only provide 90 minutes of structured physical activity every Monday, Wednesday and Friday but also to help prepare the boys and young men to lead more productive lives upon their eventual release.

It also will afford Jacobs and Wahl-Alexander with exceptional opportunities for research in their respective disciplines of Sport Psychology and Physical Education.

Gaining permission to collect data behind the walls of juvenile detention facilities is rare, Jacobs says: “We get to help understand a population that’s been forgotten.”

Tim Mack
Tim Mack

NIU graduate student Tim Mack, who is pursuing a master’s degree in Sport Management, is serving as the on-the-ground teacher. He and the center’s Leisure Time Activity Specialist will work with about 15 young men who have earned the privilege through their A- and B-level good behavior.

“I want to give them a positive role model to look up to,” says Mack, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology from NIU in the spring. “I want to be that voice they hear when I’m not around – that they would think twice about doing the wrong thing or something that’s not right.”

Mack already knows the boys, who are mostly 17 and 18, fairly well.

He’s conducted interviews with them in their rooms, asking them questions about affirmative life skills. What does being a leader mean? What was a time when you took responsibility? What was a time when you messed up?

Few were able to tell Mack that they have anyone aspirational in their lives, he says.

But he believes the candid talks – and he is only a few years older than they are – unlocked doors into some of their souls. “This might give them a big reminder of why they ended up in here,” he says. “Our overall goal is to not have them come back.”

With the classes finally beginning, Mack and Wahl-Alexander first are assessing the physical fitness capabilities of the participants.

Preliminary data will include the numbers of sit-ups and push-ups the boys can accomplish, the number of the laps they can run, their sit-and-reach measurements and their cardiovascular endurance. Long-range numbers expected to show progress could tender incomplete results if the teens are released before the project ends next May, however.

Each class period will resemble after-school sports clubs or sports team practices.

Some of the sports are familiar ones, such as football and basketball. Others likely are not, including speedball, ultimate Frisbee, Tchoukball and a tennis-baseball hybrid. Mack is also asking the boys what sports they like to play.

Classes open with stretching – “I hope to get somebody to lead the stretching,” Mack says – and will include a “goal of the day” related to a life skill, teambuilding activities and a cool-down led by the “student of the day.”

Illinois Youth Center participants also will learn how to exercise in a recreational center and how to work out in their rooms, tangible demonstrations of their ability to carry skills from one setting to another.

But it’s the transference of life skills from inside to outside that Mack, Jacobs and Wahl-Alexander truly hope to witness. Once released, will the teens resist the pressure of the streets and the gangs that lurk there? Will they make good decisions?

“The true win,” Jacobs says, “is, ‘Can we see these kids adopt these positive behaviors in the Real World?’ ”

Jacobs and Wahl-Alexander, who share an office in Anderson Hall, developed Project FLEX based on Wahl-Alexander’s previous experience teaching P.E. in a female juvenile detention center in Alabama during his graduate school years.

Administrators of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice were “very accommodating,” Wahl-Alexander says, adding that he was able to initiate conversations with his first phone call. When issues arose during subsequent talks, he says, the state officials were happy to check with their superiors or to look for ways to work around the potential complications.

“They were really positive about giving us as much freedom as they could,” he says.

Meanwhile, the professors are giving Mack as much freedom as possible. “We are supporting Tim. We gave him the tools. We will be there for him,” Jacobs says. “But we are letting him own this experience. We told him, ‘They are building their trust with you.’ ”

For his part, Mack is aware that his professors are studying him during these months to see how the project changes him. They’ve already observed a rise in his “confidence – his belief in himself he can do this.”

Mack is seeing that growth, too, in the daily reflections he records.

He remembers vividly his first trip to St. Charles – “There’s barbed wire everywhere. It’s pretty intense,” he says – as well as his thoughts about going inside without a cell phone or a watch. “Time is pretty much lost in there,” he says.

In the end, though, Mack knows he will emerge stronger and well-prepared for professional life in sport management. He believes that teaching inside the Illinois Youth Center will sharpen his skills his “people skills and listening skills.”

“If I can connect with, and get to these, kids,” he says, “then I think it will carry over in my future career.”

Jacobs and Wahl-Alexander agree.

“We told him that when he’s applying for jobs, and employers are flipping through resumes,” Jacobs says, “the fact that he’s worked as an educator at a juvenile detention center is definitely going to catch their eyes.”

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