COVID-19 has proven no match for Project FLEX.
It’s true that when the pandemic arrived in the spring, the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KNPE) did suspend its initiative that provide in-person, structured physical activity to young men incarcerated at the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles.
Meanwhile, the inability to call, text or email participants threatened to completely disrupt their connection with the NIU graduate students who operate under the guidance of KNPE faculty Jenn Jacobs and Zach Wahl-Alexander.
“Unfortunately, since March, all programs have been suspended, and no visitors have been allowed in the facility.” Jacobs says. “The kids have truly lived the incarcerated life. They’re not getting to participate in any extracurriculars, see their families, interact with volunteers.”
Yet Jacobs and Wahl-Alexander, who launched Project FLEX in 2018, were undeterred.
Scoring an assist: the U.S. Postal Service and ESPN/Netflix’s “The Last Dance” documentary covering Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
“The technology is not there for them to communicate with us, so we kind of went old-school. We would send our FLEX members letters, just checking in but also providing workouts,” Jacobs says. “They did get access to watch ‘The Last Dance,’ and we would send them updates about that. ‘Did you see when Michael Jordan said this in that episode!?’ We wanted to keep it as normal as possible.”
Forbidding visitors at the facility provided another benefit, Wahl-Alexander adds.
“As unfortunate as some of these things are, they’ve been able to maintain the sanctity and keep everyone healthy,” he says. “They have been able to keep a pretty safe level at the facility.”
Now, with extensive safety protocols in place, and the facility’s population down to only 40, visitors and volunteers are welcome to return – and Project FLEX is ready to launch again.
Jacobs and Wahl-Alexander spent the summer meeting weekly via Zoom with their quintet of KNPE graduate assistants: returnees Barrett Kaeb and Kenneth Riley Jr. and new faces Javon Davis, Antonio Holloway and Izaiah Webb.
“We called it a training program. They had readings each week about best practices for working with kids who have traumatic backgrounds,” Jacobs says. “We also did fun stuff, like ‘Getting to Know You’ icebreakers, both to get to know our new team members but also to give them a chance to practice leading icebreakers once they’d resume teaching.”
“Building a strong relationship between the graduate students and us is really valuable in gaining trust and creating a strong team dynamic,” Wahl-Alexander says. “We’re making sure that they feel comfortable and that they have to confidence to go in there and lead high-quality instruction.”
Their time has arrived.
And because fitness programs are physically distant in nature, Project FLEX will look similar to previous years despite the May graduation of original GA Tim Mack, who earned his master’s degree in Sport Management, and the introduction of some COVID-friendly activities.
“Tim was amazing, but the cool thing about having so many new faces is that they have been able to bring some really cool, innovative ideas,” Wahl-Alexander says. “We’ve been really fortunate that all of the graduate students we’ve worked with have their own perspective and different philosophies about everything. They begin to develop their own teaching philosophies and their own effectiveness in the classroom.”
Considering the circumstances that stalled the momentum of Project FLEX and Swole Patrol for months, Jacobs and Wahl-Alexander are filled with optimism for the future.
Former behavior-based requirements for participation have been lifted by Illinois Youth Facility administrators as their population has declined sharply, which will make Project FLEX more inclusive and magnify its power.
Discussions with FLEX graduate students during the summer addressed the civil unrest tied to racial injustice and considered “how our program really aligns with the Black Lives Matter movement,” Jacobs says.
“It’s given me new perspective that this program goes far beyond a research project for us,” she says. “We’re able to provide opportunities for graduate students to learn about their careers and their passions and just feel connected to social justice. And all that is outside of the impact on the kids at the facility.”
Even the continued incarceration of some of the young men provides some encouragement for Year 3.
“Quite a few of our original program members are still present because their sentences were rather lengthy,” Jacobs says. “While that’s a sad reality, the positive spin is that they help maintain the continuity of the program, and they’ve really risen up and become leaders.”
Meanwhile, she adds, good news is found in some “alums” who’ve been released.
“We’ve been in regular contact with one member. He now runs a sports program at a community center at his neighborhood, and said he’s been implementing a lot of ideas from Project FLEX. He wants to keep in touch,” she says. “We were discussing – pre-pandemic – having him come to speak to our classes. He’s a really great example of how to change the trajectory of your life once you get out of prison. We’re really proud of that.”
“I talk to him every couple weeks,” Wahl-Alexander adds. “He’s been accepted to NIU. He was one of the original members who came to the NIU FLEX visit, which he tells us was a turning point in his life.”
Young men chosen for FLEX CREW (College Readiness Exposure Week) help to advance the project’s goal of improving life outcomes for the young men by showing them the possibilities of higher education.
Planning also has begun to launch – when it’s safe to do so, of course – a series of monthly “field trips” to DeKalb for “after-school club” Project FLEX sessions that would take place in Anderson Hall or the Rec Center. Participants would earn the privilege by achieving goals set forward by the NIU graduate students.
These “wouldn’t look exactly like normal Project FLEX sessions,” Wahl-Alexander says, and would include guest speakers from campus, games and even lessons on good nutrition.
Wahl-Alexander and Jacobs are contacting NIU student organizations and departments, including the Black Male Initiative and the Latino Resource Center, to request presentations that would resonate with young men.
“One of the biggest feedback points is that they really like the interaction with the college kids, to just ask questions that we might not be able to answer or that they might not feel super-comfortable asking us,” he says.
Such access to peer networking is beneficial.
“When you work with kids in general, regardless of ethnicity or socioeconomic status, they typically aren’t the best communicators. Kids don’t want to share feelings. They don’t want to express impact and importance of relationships and those types of things,” Wahl-Alexander says.
“One thing we’ve noticed, especially with the kids we’ve had a lot of continuity with – who we’ve known for months and months – is that when we go in, and when they see us, that initial, really big smile that we get means a lot,” he adds, “especially with these kids. They live such a guarded life in the facility, and I think that any sort of positivity – any sort of smile – can be perceived as a weakness.”
Meanwhile, attention has gone global.
Rosie Meek, professor of Psychology and founder and head of the Law School at Royal Holloway University of London, has contacted Jacobs and Wahl-Alexander. Meek is the world’s leading researcher sport programs in prisons, Jacobs says.
“She’s written a textbook on it, and she just got a contract for another book called ‘Sport, Physical Activity, and Criminal Justice.’ She reached out to us this summer and asked us to contribute to the book, and she wants us to represent the chapter on the United States youth prison systems,” Jacobs says. “That’s a big deal for us. We’re really flattered to take on that next challenge.”
Examining the small number of similar programs across the country fits well with the self-examination of how the pair has changed.
For Wahl-Alexander, who previously taught physical education in a female detention center in Alabama, the realization is complicated.
In thinking about the mental challenges of those eight months, he remembers “never wanting to do that again.” In the years since then, he remembers feeling nervous about the emotional investment required for success.
But he’s happy now that he told Jacobs – his officemate in Anderson Hall – about Alabama.
“We’ve definitely had the emotional roller coaster, but I’m glad that we’ve done it,” Wahl-Alexander says. “I feel confident that the work we’ve done has been beneficial, not just to our students but to the youth in the facility.”
Jacobs agrees, adding that she herself is a student of Project FLEX.
“I love the program,” she says, “but it’s teaching me about how privileged I am. How fortunate I am. How horrible other people have it. I grew up in Chicago, with a fortunate, supportive family, and just miles away, kids all around me were growing up in the opposite circumstances.”
Mostly, she says, her interactions with the incarcerated youth are “shifting my perspective on a ‘troubled kid’ and helping me to see that they are a product of their environment and their circumstances.”
“It’s helped me to look more complexly at the kids I work with but then also the students I teach,” Jacobs says.
“Especially now, during the pandemic, I’m really trying to be intentional about understanding that kids come with their own sets of backgrounds and challenges,” she adds, “and whether it’s a kid in jail or a kid in my KNPE 310 class, if we can find a way to connect with them and help them feel competent and empowered and learn something, then they’re being set up to achieve something in life.”