Teaching kids is hard. Timothy Mack would know a thing about that. He's been in the classroom for a while.
He's a graduate student for sports management, and also studied kinesiology at Northern Illinois University. He has a background working with kids. Now he teaches a program a bit like P.E., but with life skills, too.
"I run it, I structure it, I come up with a plan, activities, and our life skill of the day," Mack said.
If something goes wrong during his weekly class, he said, he calls Saint Anthony Lloyd.
"We've gotten to a point where Lloyd will jump in without me even having to ask or give him like a look, or anything, so that's what makes our relationship so important and so helpful," he said.
Lloyd and Mack know working with young people can be challenging. But it adds another layer when those students are incarcerated.
"A big thing is not to judge," Mack said. "I know that there's times that there's crazy stories or things that might seem scary, but to just, like, realize that these are kids and that everyone deserves a second chance in life."
Lloyd is the leisure activities director at Illinois Youth Center in Saint Charles. It's an all-male juvenile jail.
"I was really troubled. So when I see kids that come through the system, I see myself in them," he said. "So whenever I see myself in them, I feel like I can relate. And they relate to me because I can relate to them."
He's worked as the director for less than two years. He helps run around 30 programs at the jail, a stark contrast, he said, to the one or two programs the center had before Lloyd took the reigns.
"What I do helps make the facility a safer place because they usually become agitated, aggravated, and unsafe, when they don't have anything to do," said Lloyd.
One of these programs is Project FLEX, run by Mack. It's a mix of psychology, physical education, and skill development.
"Find whatever it is that you can help kids relate to and build upon that," Lloyd said. "If it's basketball, volleyball, arts, whatever it is. Because essentially, they'll draw to the activity because it's good to them and they can do it. But that relationship is what ultimately determines whether they change or not."
Community colleges and universities partner with correctional facilities around the state. NIU joins Lake Land Community College as program collaborators at the Saint Charles jail.
Lloyd and Mack are working with different students today - they're sharing with students and staff at NIU what they’ve been doing since the project began six months ago.
To keep people from coming back to the justice system after they've left, Lloyd says, you have to invest in them while they're there. He's hoping activities and mentorships will help make sure his kids eventually leave the jail -- for good.
"The biggest thing that you could do to change a kid's life is not to continue to throw money, even though it's needed for some programs, but just spend that time with them and enjoy them," Lloyd said.
He added that working with kids also requires long term, trauma-informed investment.
"But the hard part is, is keeping a leisure time activities person in the field. That was the hardest part, because most people use it as a stepping stone to become a counselor, because it was easy transition," said Lloyd.
Lloyd and Mack are joined by program creators Jennifer Jacobs and Zachary Wahl-Alexander, both NIU professors. The professors work with FLEX students weekly as well.
Wahl-Alexander said providing as many opportunities as possible for incarcerated young people can only be a help. And looking towards the future, he said? Make the program strong and sustainable -- and then head to the National Institute of Health or NIH:
"So our long-term plan is to go to NIH and get some like strong funding to do some leadership programs at this facility and then potentially expand to another."
Mack's workplace and study hall will merge into one next week as some FLEX students come to NIU campus for a visit. Professor Jacobs said they'll sit in on college classes, meet coaches and counselors, and do team building exercises.
"Then our Project FLEX youth will get to ask NIU students, 'What’s college life like?' and, 'Tell me about college parties, are they really as fun as the movies show?'" said Jacobs.
Jacobs noted that applying what Project FLEX students learned to life outside their classroom setting is what will make the lasting difference.