Project FLEX culminates in campus visit for young men who glimpse opportunity

They seem like any other college students.

Young. Comfortably dressed. High school graduates. Eager to participate. Curious about GPAs and friends, part-time jobs and time management. Interested in earning college degrees to pursue careers in coaching, law enforcement and music.

But these three visitors to the NIU campus are not exactly the same as those Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education students with whom they blended so well on May 2. They currently live behind the bars of the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles, serving sentences for serious mistakes made as juveniles.

Jenn Jacobs and Zach Wahl-Alexander work with these three – and nearly 70 others – through Project FLEX, a program they created to promote physical activity and leadership training.

Launching the initiative only last fall, it seemed wholly unimaginable to the assistant professors that it so quickly could lead to this – to bringing any of the young men outside the secure walls to visit DeKalb as potential college students.

Here they were, though, listening to KNPE Academic Advisor Tony Calderala talk about the college application process, writing unique and personal admissions essays, taking the SATs, transferring credits, finding good places to study or tapping into campus resources for academic success as well as programs that teach positive life skills.

Soon they were in an Anderson Hall gym, playing games with Physical Education majors.

Wahl-Alexander gave the group just 45 seconds (and a rule of no talking) to line up by height, and then just a minute to line up by birthdays. The three quickly caught on, moving along the queue to where they knew January or June or December people would stand, and holding up with their fingers the numbers of their birth months to give silent hints.

Zach Wahl-Alexander
Zach Wahl-Alexander

After that, they worked in three separate groups to stack 15 rubber cones in a pyramid shape – five on the bottom, one on the top, and rows of two, three and four in between – using only the handles of badminton racquets as tools.

Doing so required strategy, teamwork and communication, which of course was the point. Success in higher education and life depends on those same ingredients, leading to a time when the three groups of P.E. majors could answer the college-related questions of each of their visitors.

Other activities on the busy schedule for the trio of young men included a tour of NIU Athletics facilities, including Brigham Field within Huskie Stadium and the nearby Yordon Center; lunch in New Residence Hall; and a trip to the Rec Center for a crate-climbing exercise that also stressed team-building.

End-of-day reflections and comments rang the desired tone for Jacobs, Wahl-Alexander and graduate student Tim Mack, who’s driven to St. Charles three times each week since the fall to run Project FLEX on the ground.

  • “I never thought I would end up walking on a college football field. It was incredible. I just wish we had a ball to play with!”
  • “Today changed everything. I can see myself lifting weights at the Rec, eating at New Hall and being in Dr. Wahl’s class.”
  • “I’ll remember this day for the rest of my life.”

For the two faculty members, who hatched this idea in their shared office, such confirmation of their efforts was sweet: “They were just like kids in a candy store, taking it all in,” Wahl-Alexander says.

“Having our Project FLEX leaders on campus was eye-opening because it was a chance to see them get to act like kids, which is what they actually are, but they’ve missed out on a lot of their teenage years because of their difficult situations,” he adds.

Jenn Jacobs
Jenn Jacobs

“Beyond what this offers the youth, doing these types of on campus trips is something we’ve talked about as a potential recruitment opportunity for helping students from marginalized groups gain access to attending college. And that starts with them believing college is within their capabilities.”

Jacobs calls the successful day “a vision for how we want to see the program grow.”

“It’s hard to put into words what kind of impact this experience will have, and I’m not just talking about for the youth,” she says. “For Zach and me, I don’t think we ever could have imagined that working with this population would become the new focus of our research and practice. It’s motivating, it’s new uncharted territory and it’s an important reminder to use our work to reach those who need it most. It might be how we leave a mark on this field.”

She remains awestruck by the sight of “our FLEX leaders sitting shoulder to shoulder with NIU students hearing about the impact of college.”

“Taking this all in, it’s hard to remember that these youth have been cut off from this world, in some cases, for several years,” she says. “And at the end of the day, we heard the FLEX leaders say this is a day that will stay with them for the rest of their lives; that because of today, everything has changed. As an educator, is there really anything better than that?”

Grateful to the Illinois Youth Center, the KNPE department, the College of Education and the NIU Police for making the May 2 field trip happen, Jacobs and Wahl-Alexander are optimistic it can and will happen again for other FLEX leaders who earn the privilege.

And, largely thanks to their partner and champion on the inside, it seems a definite possibility.

St. Anthony Lloyd
St. Anthony Lloyd

St. Anthony Lloyd, one of the main supervisors at the youth center and its former director of Leisure Time Activities, visited the NIU campus April 24 to speak passionately of his motivation during a panel discussion about Project FLEX.

It’s clear that he provides the perfect role model for his young men.

“As a kid, I was a knucklehead,” Lloyd told the standing-room-only audience in the Holmes Student Center’s Heritage Room. “There’s no easy way to say it.”

Raised in North Carolina, he was “defiant and disrespectful.” He now considers those times as “struggles I went through to become the person I am today.”

Lloyd scored points a talented wide receiver on the high school football field but lacked the height or weight to attract attention of college coaches. When he walked on at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, only there because he tagged along with a buddy, he spent two years on the second team waiting for his chance.

Then his friend got booted from the team for missing practices and, ultimately, kicked out of school completely.

“It was one of the worst times of my life,” Lloyd said. “But sometimes, if you want to be successful, you need to leave your best friend behind.”

Following his friend’s departure, Lloyd’s grades started climbing.

Graduate student Tim Mack
Graduate student Tim Mack

Meanwhile, he soon realized that although he had the face and personality for a job on television, it made more sense to pursue the Criminal Justice career that his father suggested. “I changed my major the next week,” he says.

A mentor advised him to find an internship, and he landed a great one with the U.S. Marshals. By this point, he also was tearing up the Pembroke gridiron, earning MVP honors. He then put his red shirt eligibility toward a first year of graduate school.

Unfortunately – or fortunately, as it would turn out – Lloyd could not get into the Master of Public Administration program because his application was lost. There were spots available in Physical Education, however, and for three years after graduation, he taught P.E.

Eventually feeling that he was “wasting one of (his) degrees,” he moved to Illinois and took the opportunity to work as a corrections officer at the St. Charles facility.

Within the facility he calls “the end of the road” in the juvenile justice system, Lloyd meets young men from single- and no-parent homes, many of whom have also done time in violent street gangs. They’re serving sentences for everything from auto theft and armed robbery to sex offenses and murder. Some continue to “do crazy things” just to get a reaction.

“I’ve seen the best and the worst sides of kids,” he said. “I don’t typically look at kids’ records. I try to look at them for who they are.”

Consequently, he added, “lots of good work is being done on the inside.”

“Ninety-nine percent of the job is all about relationships. Depending on how you hold and mold that child is the outcome you’re going to get,” Lloyd said. “As you get more involved with kids, and you see more positive outcomes, you want to be involved with them.”

Lloyd and his colleagues at the youth center work to imbue the young men with foundational life skills needed to thrive after their release.

First, he tells them, they must show respect from the beginning of every relationships. He then reminds them that they’re “always going to have something to go through,” comparing those trials to the beginning, middle and end of a storm.

“Just because you’re going through something doesn’t mean you’re a bad person,” he said. “Your success is determined by how you handle your failures.”

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