Project FLEX brings sports with a purpose to teens in Illinois juvenile justice system


Read the original published article on CBS Chicago’s website here

CHICAGO (CBS) — Playing with a purpose – that is the motto of an athletic group from Northern Illinois University that hopes to improve recidivism rates for young adults.

The team gears up and heads inside youth prisons multiple times a week. CBS 2’s Lauren Victory took us inside a session that combines sports and psychology.

The goal of dodgeball may be survive. But for the young people who play sports with Project FLEX, conquering is the key objective.

For Project FLEX pickleball matches, overcoming something unfamiliar is often the focus – since it is a new activity for many.

Indeed, the whole time Project FLEX plays the sport of the day, they are trying to internalize a word of power and encouragement.

“Whether it’s like ‘teamwork,’ ‘responsibility,'” one teen said.

The words are motivating mantras for the players. Their faces did not appear on TV for this story, as many are underage – and all are under supervision of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice.

We got rare access to the Chicago facility.

“They don’t want us to go down the same paths that we was going down,” a teen said.

“They” are the coaches from Project FLEX – a program that combines sports and psychology.

Professor Jenn Jacobs from Northern Illinois University co-created Project FLEX about five years ago to work with teens and young adults in custody in connection with serious crimes.

“We’re intentionally helping youth figure out – what are their skills?” Jacobs said. “What competencies do they have, and how can those come out in the sport world?”

Project FLEX assigns its spin on sports during huddles – before and after each game.

“Can you be the spirit of the team where you’re cheering people on?” Jacobs said. “Can you be a facilitator? Can you be a coach?”

It is a way to think about the future while having fun.

“I1: you see everybody running around with a big smile on their faces,” a teen said. “If we could have it every day, I would come every day.”

Project FLEX coaches spent years offering their program for free – but that made it tricky to expand. Now, some expenses are covered by the Department of Juvenile Justice.

It is an investment that has led to a “safer, more positive environment,” the state tells us.

Take it from the players.

“If you understand a person better, it’s probably less likely get into it or have a disagreement,” a teen said.

That understanding, he said, comes from both pouring and playing his heart out during Project FLEX.

NIU professors and grad students bring Project FLEX to three out of five Illinois juvenile justice facilities right now. They believe their concept could be replicated in other areas if correctional centers and local universities partner up.