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Project FLEX changes lives, outlooks beyond participants in youth facilities

June 29, 2021
Kenneth Riley Jr.
Kenneth Riley Jr.

Kenneth Riley Jr. went behind the walls of the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles to impart his passion for fitness and exercise.

But what the NIU College of Education graduate student discovered inside the juvenile medium-security facility has changed him as much as his presence changed the lives of the young men incarcerated there.

“Some days, they might have something big going on outside of Project FLEX or Swole Patrol, so they may be feeling down or tired, so we just sit down and talk,” says Riley, an M.S.Ed. student in Kinesiology and Physical Education with a specialization in Exercise Physiology.

“I just put myself in their shoes. I think about what’s best for them, not what’s best for me. I realize I’m there for them to improve their physical and mental well-being and to make them commit to fitness,” he adds.

More importantly, “I’m giving them stress management tools, and hopefully they take what we’re giving them – or showing them – and apply it to life once they get out, doing things differently.”

Riley treasures the opportunities.

“That’s why I love Project FLEX,” he says. “I get to share my love for fitness, exercise and life with individuals who may have a different outlook on life by being genuine with them, being myself and just showing them that I’m there for them – that they’re my No. 1 purpose.”

Graduate students always have been at the heart of the programs launched by professors Jenn Jacobs and Zach Wahl-Alexander.

From the beginning in October 2018, Tim Mack was with them.

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

Less than three years later, the number of students involved has grown along with the initiatives, the locations and the aspirations of its creators.

Young men still serving sentences at St. Charles have visited the NIU campus to see what is possible for them. Some have started leading FLEX-like activities to their peers. Jacobs allowed students in graduate sport sociology class to focus their final projects on FLEX – and many did.

And enthusiasm for the program is growing far beyond the walls of Anderson Hall.

Donors to a crowdfunding campaign this spring contributed more than $9,000 to help the project build its own designated space at the youth center.

Facility administrator, meanwhile, view the partnership as a long-term endeavor. They want to hear new ideas, are offering their own, are pushing for the monthly field trips to campus and are advocating for expansion to a second detention center in the suburbs.

Their annual report includes an entire section on Project FLEX, Jacobs says, and acknowledges its role in achieving administrative goals of keeping the young men engaged and entertained.

“We keep them active, and you don’t need to be in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education to know that saying active has a lot of positive physical, psychological and social benefits,” she says.

“We’re still collecting research, but at least we’re hearing that the incidence of disciplinary actions for kids in our program has gone down a lot, so they’re getting into less trouble and engaging in less physical altercations.”

Welcome to Warrenville
Huntleigh Wozniak
Huntleigh Wozniak

Huntleigh Wozniak was majoring in psychology with a minor in kinesiology at NIU when she began assisting Jacobs with the Girls Boxing Club at Clinton Rosette Middle School in DeKalb.

Now, as a graduate assistant with Project FLEX, she has helped to move its programming into a second location: The Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville is a Level 1 maximum-security facility for its female population and a Level 1 medium-security facility for males.

“I was introduced to FLEX when I took a class with Dr. J. She was talking about it, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is so cool,’ but I didn’t think I would be able to do it because I was a female,” Wozniak says. “St. Charles is a little tougher than Warrenville.”

When Jacobs and Wahl-Alexander invited her to become their representative in Warrenville, she jumped at the offer.

Her first visit took place in January.

“Doing it is cool. I went in super open-minded, not expecting one thing, and right off the bat, I started making relationships really well with all the kids – girls and boys,” says Wozniak, who is pursuing her master’s degree in sport psychology. “It didn’t really matter what their gender was. They really didn’t care that I’m a woman. They were like, ‘as long as you know what you’re doing, and you can talk to us.’ That’s all they really cared about.”

She provides a boxing club for the young women – “I teach the boys some boxing, too,” she says – and is leading interactive activities with the young men, including basketball.

Meanwhile, she is learning about her own abilities to connect with adolescents.

Huntleigh Wozniak
Huntleigh Wozniak

“The younger girls will respond to anything you have them do, really,” Wozniak says, “but the one thing about the older girls is that while they also will do whatever, you have to ease them into a little more. You have to talk to them about what they’re going to be doing.”

Conversation comes easily – “They are kind of close to my age. They’re about 18 or 19, and I’m 22,” she says – and is improved with “a lot of complimenting.”

One young woman let down her guard to Wozniak during an activity to look for a silver lining in something negative.

“She was telling me about a situation she has with a boy who’s also in the Warrenville facility. They’re like a couple, and he was in a visit with another girl, and she saw who it was. She was like, ‘I felt really hurt about it. He was lying to me,’ ” Wozniak says.

“We talked it over a little bit, and I said, ‘At least you saw it with your own eyes.’ In situations in facilities like these, it’s hard to see things with your own eyes. You’re kind of just listening to what people tell you,” she adds, “and she was like, ‘Yeah, that’s a really good point.’ ”

That also enlightened Wozniak.

“She was definitely teaching me about the different communication that can exist inside a facility like that. It can be the same way we talk about things, but it’s just kind of difficult for them to have those conversations sometimes,” she says.

“I really do think it teaches them different ways to look at things,” she adds. “A lot of these kids grow up certain ways, and then area looking at things in certain ways, but’s kind of nice when they get an outside person to show them how things could be done differently, and then they take on those different skills and use them in their own lives.”

Wozniak is confident that her new skills will benefit her eventual career in sport psychology – a path inspired, ironically, by a girl who made some bad decisions.

“I want to work with athletes after they get injured. They can’t really play their sport anymore, and they’re kind of changed. It happened to my best friend. She was a dancer, got injured and couldn’t dance anymore, and went downhill from there,” Wozniak says.

And now, thanks to Project FLEX and its lessons how sports can shape positive adult outcomes for children and youth, Wozniak is “leaning more toward working with young people. I’m thinking about working in more facilities like this – in tougher situations, where you have to come in open-minded and you have to be able to think on-the-spot to help people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get that.”

‘Pretty much anything can happen’

Kenneth Riley remembers his first time at St. Charles.

Riley stayed in his car, trying to relax as he thought about what awaited him past the metal detectors and the locked doors.

“I just realized I was given an opportunity to do something that not many people would be able to do,” he says, “so I wanted to make my best first impression.”

Turns out he wasn’t alone in that goal.

“We walked in. We got to see the whole facility. We got the tour of the cottages. We went to the visitors center,” Riley says.

Kenneth Riley Jr.
Kenneth Riley Jr.

“One or two guys were just trying to make an impression – play ‘Big Man,’ just trying to put on a show for us – and I thought, ‘I know why I’m here. He’s just talking. Those are just words. I’m not going to let that distract me. I’m not going to let another individual stress me out and deter me from what I want to do.’ I knew what I was going in there for, I knew what I wanted to do, and I wasn’t going to let him throw me off course.”

And he hasn’t.

Riley forged a strong connection with a young man “who just needed someone else to match his vibe, just someone who was passionate for exercise like him.”

“He would be kind of shy or whatever, but he opened up, matured more, talked about his feelings more. He asked me what I do to relax, or how he could control his heart rate if he’s stressed out,” Riley says. “I go in the next day, and he’s shared that with the other kids. He’s leading a group exercise. A night-and-day change. It definitely put a smile on my face, for sure.”

Like Wozniak, he is learning in the process, feeling prepared for a career as a college professor or working in an exercise physiology lab and nurturing his positive outlook.

“You really can’t sit down and complain too much, because you know what you signed up for, and I will be able to take that approach,” Riley says.

“Going from a prison environment, I don’t think I can work in another environment that will be that stressful, and it gives me a different view on life. It made me appreciate life a lot more, and I think about it all the time,” he adds. “You can have a whole plan, expecting everything to go accordingly, but pretty much anything can happen. You can have everything in place, but if it doesn’t fall into place, you just keep going and find a way to get the job done.”

At the same time, he’s helping others in his circle to open their minds.

Kenneth Riley Jr.
Kenneth Riley Jr.

While most people who hear about Riley’s work in St. Charles are supportive, some wonder “why I would give someone who’s locked up, or committed a crime or a murder, personal training. Why would I give them a benefit? Why would I care?”

He tries to avoid conversations like those, but tells the cynics that “some people may have grown up in different circumstances.”

“There may have been factors that led up to what they did, so you can’t really judge someone, especially if you haven’t walked in their shoes. I’m pretty sure we’ve all done something that we’re not proud of so, like I say, who am I to judge someone?” Riley says.

“I say, ‘You can’t do anything because it’s COVID and lockdown. You’re just stressed out being at home. How do you think someone who’s in a cell would feel? They have nothing to do all day. If you felt like your mental health and physical health are being impacted on the outside, how do you think someone would feel if they’re locked up in a cage all day?’ ”

Ripe for research

Maura Kealy and Natalie Polan collaborated on their final project for KNPE 586, the course Jacobs teaches.

Both are certified athletic trainers who hoped to go inside the youth facilities to teach basic first aid and basic prevention and care of injuries: “These kids are playing sports,” Kealy says. “If you twist an ankle, you’ve got to know how to get yourself better and not make it worse.”

Entry was not available, however, so the pair instead interviewed Wozniak and fellow Project FLEX graduate student Izaiah Webb about how the experience has impacted them.


Meet the FLEX crew: Jacobs, Mack, Javon Davis, Riley, Wozniak, Webb and Wahl-Alexander.

“How are you examining your own internal biases and judgments about different perspectives on life?” Kealy says. “How are you applying these different views, and taking a step back from what you think, to stop this immediate judgement and immediate assumptions?”


  • How well prepared did you feel before going into the facility? Can you describe your first day?
  • Is there a specific person, story, or encounter that sticks out to you as perception- changing?
  • How has your experience changed the way you view the incarcerated juvenile population, and the system they are in?
  • How has your experience with project FLEX changed your approach to your daily life (internal/snap judgments, relationships and/or world view)?
  • If someone were interested in working with project FLEX, what advice/guidance would you give them?

Kealy and Polan knew the answers could prove complicated.

“They’re kids,” Kealy says of the juveniles, “and you’ve got talk to them like they’re just any other kids, but in the back of your brain, you’ve got to remind yourself that they’re there for a reason, whether it’s right or wrong.”

Three young men from the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles visit the NIU campus as guests of Project FLEX
Three young men from the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles visit the NIU campus as guests of Project FLEX

And that, she says, “brought up some topics of, ‘Why are they there? Is the system broken? Can we really blame the kids for the reasons they’re there? Is it their upbringing? Is it a decision they made just to kind of survive where they lived?’ Our survey questioned a lot of that.”

Wozniak and Webb, they learned, “really love working with Project FLEX and the opportunities it gives them, and the opportunities they’re able to give the kids in return.”

FLEX also “taught both of them to stop internalizing judgments and making snap judgments about people, because you never know where people are from and what their background is.”

As someone raised in the predominantly white suburb of Evergreen Park, Kealy is now able to identify some of that in herself.

Just coming to NIU in 2015 as an undergraduate exposed her to great diversity, she says, and KNPE 586 then “really spoke to me about observing my internal bias and changing that.”

Consequently, she and Polan still wish they could have observed FLEX on the inside.

“The questions we developed were based on what we talked about in Dr. J’s class but were also about what we hoped to learn and gain if we did have the ability to visit,” Kealy says. “How could we change our perspectives by working with kids we never were exposed to growing up? How would that help us understand the reality of life outside of our own little bubble?”

Her brother-in-law already had supplied a glimpse, she says: He had worked at an Arkansas camp for children from low-income communities, she says, and had learned to tell his campers that they were better and more capable than they thought they were.

Maura Kealy
Maura Kealy

The same is true in St. Charles and Warrenville.

“Kids need to know that, especially when they are in a situation like this where they’re in a facility, where they’re in a cell, there is no place to go and nothing to do,” Kealy says. “The interaction with someone who you know isn’t going to judge you is so important for kids.”

With hopes to work as an athletic trainer for the military, she believes the research project is providing excellent preparation toward frame of mind.

“The people who enlist come from so many different backgrounds, and you may not know what those backgrounds are,” Kealy says. “People can’t always control where they came from, or what they had to do to get through their backgrounds, or they learn and grow. I’m there not to judge them on who they area. I’m there to help them be the best athlete they can be.”