Illinois Youth Center speaker to discuss ‘Flexing Behind Bars’ of juvenile detention

In the six months since Project FLEX began delivering physical education and leadership training to young men incarcerated in the Illinois Youth Center of St. Charles, many eyes have been opened.

Jenn Jacobs and Zach Wahl-Alexander, professors in the NIU Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education who deliver that programming with graduate student Tim Mack, certainly count themselves in that group.

They also include dozens of young men they’ve encountered at the facility, where such an extracurricular activity is a privilege for the earning. As many as 70 already have participated, and between 10 and 20 are on the waiting list at any given time, hoping for their chance.

Now the opportunity for enlightenment is coming to the NIU campus.

St. Anthony Lloyd, recently promoted from leisure time activity director at the center to one of the main supervisors, will speak in the Heritage Room of the Holmes Student Center from 2:30 to 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 24, on “Flexing Behind Bars: Stories from a Juvenile Detention Center about the Power of Sport.”

All are welcome. Call the KNPE Department at (815) 753-1407 for more information.

“He is a pretty dynamic and inspiring person, and he’s one of the main reasons we even wanted to begin this project,” Jacobs says.

St. Anthony Lloyd
St. Anthony Lloyd

“When we went there and saw how he interacted with the youth, we realized that he’s one of the good ones. He’s just got a lot of qualities that will connect with our students – he’s young, energetic, passionate, loves sports. He’s really down to earth, and he’s open about the great parts and the not-so-great parts of his job there.”

Lloyd, who holds degrees in Physical Education and Criminal Justice earned in North Carolina, also demonstrates how college prepares graduates for career flexibility. He began working at the Illinois Youth Center in security, a job nowhere near his academic background.

“Zach and I think this would be a good example for College of Education students to learn about lesser-known career paths, and we’re marketing this to the Sociology Department as well,” Jacobs says. “I would love for some of our students to have their eyes opened to working with youth in alternative settings – juvenile detention centers, mental health facilities, group homes – because I’m not sure that’s something that’s too widely talked about in our educator classes.”

“Just having some of our students gushing over the good stuff St. Anthony is doing will be really cool,” Wahl-Alexander adds, “just being able to hear about some of his experiences and about making a positive impact when you’re parked in the right place and you genuinely care about kids.”

Entering the criminal justice system profession never crossed Lloyd’s mind before he arrived at the facility in St. Charles, where the average daily population is 138.

Lloyd’s began his educational path with a degree in Criminal Justice and plans to become a U.S. marshal. He applied for graduate school to study Public Administration, but his paperwork somehow went missing – and because he already had a football scholarship, he was thrown into the Physical Education program. He never left.

A page from a Project FLEX participant’s exercise diary.

“I taught Physical Education for three years immediately after graduation,” Lloyd says. “People would ask me if I this was what I wanted to do, and just to give them an answer, I said it would be really nice to run a juvenile detention recreation program. Somehow I found myself at St. Charles. I was like, ‘Man, this dream could actually be a reality.’ And here I am.”

Despite “having to deal with some pretty intense crises” in the last three years – “It’s almost like nothing fazes him,” Jacobs says – Lloyd is building strong and transformative relationships with the young men.

He’s also committed his time fully, typically working seven-day weeks and rarely taking a day off.

“Since I moved into this role, it doesn’t feel like work to me,” Lloyd says. “I just love interacting with the kids. That’s like the biggest joy. It’s being able to bond with them, and just see them grow, you know. You get a troubled kid, you actually spend some time with him, you gain his trust and you see the positive outcomes. That’s the most rewarding part of it all: treating them like humans.”

Those stories should resonate, Wahl-Alexander says.

“For so many of our preservice teachers, one of the reasons they go into education is to work with kids and to have a positive impact,” he says. “But it’s not just something that happens because you’re a teacher. Having those types of interactions with kids is a skill that’s learned. It’s not something that just materializes because you’re in a position of power. Kids need to have that positive role model to look toward.”

Bringing Lloyd to campus will serve another vital purpose.

“We want people to be less scared about juvenile detention facilities,” Jacobs says. “These are just kids who made a bad choice. They like to play games. They like to play sports. They play ‘Go Fish.’ They talk about what’s for dinner. Prison isn’t this elusive, foreign and scary place. It’s just a place where kids who are getting a chance to start their lives over are at.”

Project FLEX is making that clear.

In addition to the waiting list, which confirms the level interest, the young men who are able to participate are reporting each Monday through Wednesday with consistency.

They’re also telling their friends, who then are motivated to behave, and they’re expressing their cautiously given trust in the NIU team, two of whom are Caucasian.

Journal entries show gratitude.

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

“Dear Porject Flex, I used my journal for venting about lots of stuff. I also used it for the exeries and that type of stuff,” one writes. “I did injoy ya’ll compuney it was lots of fun, I’m so glad that I was a part of project flex, like fr. I hope to be in the group of it to. Tim, Dr Jacobs, Dr Wahl, Think you for so much fun!!”

Measurements of the young men’s physical activity also are yielding results.

“Our kids are averaging about 6,000 steps a day, more than half of the recommended daily number,” Wahl-Alexander says. “The majority of the healthy, adult, non-incarcerated population is not achieving that.”

The professors, who also are using Project FLEX for research, are planning to collect data that might show the benefits of exercise during incarceration while eating three, high-calories meals each day. “We’re having a possible impact on reducing the weight gain that we’re seeing on kids who’ve been there a long time,” Wahl-Alexander says. “The kids are so sedentary.”

Plans are underway to pursue more money that would allow the program to expand with the hiring of more GAs like Mack, who already has been funded for next year.

“We want to make sure we’re serving them in the best way possible,” Wahl-Alexander says. “They’ve been really happy.”

Four or five of the youth will have a chance May 2 to prove how much they’ve grown.

Jacobs and Wahl-Alexander have permission from the Illinois Youth Center to welcome that small group to the NIU campus in DeKalb; an equal number of security guards from the center will accompany them and operate in close coordination with the NIU Police Department.

“They’ll come to campus in the morning; we’ll have a little introductory team-building and meet-and-greet. They’ll see some real-life college classes, take some sort of Athletics tour to see some of the facilities. We’ll take a tour of Anderson Hall,” Wahl-Alexander says.

“We’ll then have a leadership retreat where we learn and reaffirm the life skills and the social and emotional stuff we’ve been talking through in the program onsite.”

Everyone from the top center administrators, who report that Project FLEX is the “most popular outreach program at the facility,” to Dean Laurie Elish-Piper have been supportive of the visit.

“Research says that just by setting foot on a college campus, adolescents are more likely to believe that they have what it takes to attend college,” Jacobs says. “One of these guys has already applied to NIU to start as a college student next fall. We were his recommendations, and we’re really supportive of that.”

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