Swole – think “swollen” – is a hip way to compliment jocks on their muscles.
Urban Dictionary defines swole as “a paragon of hypermasculinity, manifesting in the physical and attitudinal embodiment of strength, occupying space with intimidating quantity and developing rippling musculature through rigorous, disciplined exercise.”
For young men incarcerated at the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles, however, those six final words can seem next to impossible.
But thanks to the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education’s Swole Patrol, the pursuit of “physical and attitudinal strength” has become a real and achievable goal.
New this semester as part of Project FLEX, Swole Patrol offers one-on-one personal training and leadership development twice weekly to six clients who qualify and remain eligible through good behavior.
“We work on personal training, life skills, stress management – anything that they want to learn,” says Kenneth Riley Jr., a M.S.Ed. student in Kinesiology and Physical Education with a specialization in Exercise Physiology who is co-leading the program with Barrett Kaeb, who is pursuing the same master’s with a specialization in Sport Psychology, “and we always exercise.”
Riley believes in the healing power of sport – “I play sports daily to relieve stress. That’s why I got into this major. That’s why I’m doing this career,” he says – and is enjoying his opportunity to show the young men “something different.”
He’s finding support from unexpected corners. Some of the facility’s guards are joining in the workouts, he says, and the young men are pushing each other to reach beyond their comfort zones.
Meanwhile, he understands why this mission is critical.
“Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I had a lot of friends in jail. I had family members in jail,” he says. “Some people might see them as misfits, but I look at things differently.”
“As we’ve done with most of Project FLEX’s programs, we recruit really high-quality grad students and let them dictate what the on-the-ground programming looks like. We can’t give enough credit to our grad students,” Jacobs says.
“I don’t know if this is typical of faculty mentors, but the approach we’re taking is not to hand them ‘what to do’ or ‘here’s how to break down your session.’ Kenneth and Barrett were there from the start, and they’re co-creating the content with us,” she adds. “Zach and I talk all the time about how lucky we are to have such committed grad students on our team, and we’re so thankful for that.”
Launched in the fall of 2018, and led by graduate student Tim Mack, Project FLEX goes behind the walls of the youth center to provide biweekly, leadership-based sport sessions to young men ages 14 to 20.
Meanwhile, it helps prepare the young men to lead more productive lives upon their eventual release.
NIU has welcomed some of those young men for campus visits last spring and fall; November’s visit included a chance to play pick-up basketball at the Convocation Center, to watch a Huskie women’s hoops practice and sot in on a sociology class on police brutality.
Another group will come to campus in April while, back in St. Charles, the more-seasoned FLEX participants are facing raised expectations to become leaders in the program by providing direction for others, volunteering as team captains, advocating for daily goals and serving as ambassadors.
“We’re 19 months into Project FLEX right now, and Zach and I are starting to focus a lot of our attention on what Project FLEX is supposed to be about: life opportunities,” Jacobs says.
“Getting to work with a one-on-one personal trainer is an example of a life opportunity, and now we’re shifting our programming to focus more on big-picture opportunities, such as college- and career-readiness. We’re just trying to give more opportunities and life chances for these kids.”
Earning entry to Swole Patrol is only the first step into a strictly managed privilege. The young men signed contracts agreeing to attend 16 sessions over two months; if they skip any of those appointments for any reason, they’re dropped as clients.
“In the real world, they would be billed $80 an hour for a personal training session,” Jacobs says. “This truly was a commitment for them, and with our first wave of clients, we’re seeing them treat this as so – approaching it with responsibility and accountability, saying, ‘I have my personal training appointment with Swole Patrol twice this week, so I’m not going to get in trouble before then.’ ”
The Swole Patrol also fills an identified gap in the Project FLEX programming.
“One of the biggest things that was missing in Project FLEX was that it was hard to have that one-on-one relationship time. That’s where relationships between instructors and kids really flourish,” Wahl-Alexander says.
Many of the young men were exercising on their own in their rooms, he adds, but not seeing the results they wanted from the physical fitness. Personal training also solved that issue.
“They talked through these fitness goals they had, the changes they wanted to see. They could be doing 1,000 pushups every single day, but they just don’t have the right knowledge,” Wahl-Alexander says.
“If we do personal training sessions, and it’s one-on-one, they’ll see those changes in their body, and hopefully, they’ll see changes in their mind,” he adds. “It’s role-modeling, and it’s another mentor for these kids.”
Riley, Kaeb and Mack are gaining from the process as well as they grow comfortable with leading the young men toward personal and social responsibility.
“They’re learning that if the relationships are there, everything else will follow. You can get the kids to do whatever you’d like them to do,” Wahl-Alexander says. “A one-hour session with Kenneth or Barrett will actually make that kid’s week. By making sure that they’re putting in the time and effort to reap the biggest benefits, they’ll see that a small window of their time goes a really long way in their lives.”