Sports program works to inspire kids in the juvenile justice system


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(The Center Square) – An outreach program is helping troubled youths envision a better future.

Project FLEX is a Northern Illinois University outreach program for kids between the ages of 14 and 20 who are serving time in a juvenile detention facility. Professors Zach Wahl-Alexander and Jenn Jacobs and their graduate students visit incarcerated young people four days a week for four- to five-hour sessions.

The time commitment is outside of their full-time faculty jobs. But participants believe they are changing the trajectory of young lives and that spurs them on to keep Project FLEX growing.

Wahl-Alexander and Jacobs use a sports activity to engage with the kids. Through sport, they teach the incarcerated youth skills that will help them be successful, once they have served their time.

“It’s kind of like an afterschool program that uses sport and physical activity to talk about life skills,” Wahl-Alexander told The Center Square.

Throughout the game play, topics such as resiliency, communication, overcoming adversity and leadership are addressed.

“So many of the characteristics that help a person in day-to-day life can be taught through an interaction or a moment in sport,” Wahl-Alexander said.

FLEX stands for “fitness, leadership, experience.” The professors and their grad students encourage the kids to envision a better future and take tangible steps to make it happen.

“People don’t realize that these are just kids. They are no different than the typical middle school or high school kid except for the crappy circumstances that they wound up in,” Wahl-Alexander said.

Over several years, the academics and the kids have built bonds and come to count on each other.

“Just seeing them mature and have goals and have things that they want to accomplish, and seeing them actually doing some tangible things to achieve those goals, is so rewarding,” Wahl-Alexander said. “When provided with an opportunity, so many of them are willing to take it.”

Eighty percent of the kids have never set foot on a college campus, Wahl-Alexander said. Project FLEX arranges day trips to college campuses for kids who are interested. The kids sit in on classes and ask questions with the college students.

“A lot of the feedback that we get is ‘we’re no different than the NIU Huskies,’” Wahl-Alexander said. They participate just like the other juniors and seniors in college.

“It really shows them that they have the abilities and the skills and the knowledge to do college,” Wahl-Alexander said.

He and Jacobs are full time professors in NIU’s Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education. Their work with Project FLEX is above and beyond their full-time faculty duties at NIU.

“It takes up a lot of time in a given week,” Wahl-Alexander said.

Project FLEX provides 1,000 hours of contact programming a year, Wahl-Alexander said.

Companies or organizations who want to provide sponsorship or volunteers are encouraged to contact Dr. Zach Wahl-Alexander at NIU or through LinkedIn.