If one thing can be said about the citizens of Kankakee County, it’s that they care deeply for children. Several Kankakee residents have turned their compassion for youth into unusual opportunities to help kids learn and succeed.
Kankakee County Soldiers
Members of the Kankakee County Soldiers, a professional basketball team, touch the lives of Kankakee County students every week by doing programs in local schools on everything from reading and developing life skills to anti-bullying. The Soldiers have been mentoring elementary and junior high students for six years, ever since team owner Barry Bradford made youth one of the team’s top priorities.
“I grew up in inner-city Chicago, and I was one of the few who made it out and got to play professional basketball and see the world,” Bradford says. “A lot of people were there for me and stuck their necks out for me. In 2001, when Michael Jordan came back to the NBA, I had some discussions with him that made me realize the impact a person can have on someone else’s life.”
Early in his basketball career, Bradford noticed that kids he mentored would come watch his games.
“They didn’t come because I was the best player – they came because I had gone to their schools and spent time with them,” he says. “Now I want my players to have a positive influence on young people, because they are the future of our society.”
The Soldiers have worked with more than 7,000 students, and Bradford says some experiences have brought them to tears.
“When we do an anti-bullying assembly, we break the ice by giving kids raffle tickets and calling them out randomly to try to shoot three hoops in a row to win a prize,” he says. “At one school, there was a kid named Henry who had been bullied for years. We randomly drew his number, and he came down to the court and made the first shot. All the kids started chanting his name.”
Henry then made the second shot – and the third.
“I told him no student had ever made three in a row, and the kids started going crazy. He became hero for the day,” Bradford says. “Teachers on the sidelines were crying, and we all teared up on the bus afterward. We talk to the kids about treating each other with respect, because you never know who will grow up to be what.”
Band Director Jerry Luzeniecki
Another Kankakee County mentor is Jerry Luzeniecki, who has enriched thousands of students’ lives by bringing music into their worlds. Luzeniecki has been a band director since 1979, directing bands in Downers Grove, Momence and the Bourbonnais Elementary School District, where he has been employed since 1994. He directs the seventh- and eighth-grade bands at the Upper Grade Center and the Jazz Band, and teaches fourth-grade music at Shabbona Elementary School.
“Some of the most important lessons learned in the band room have nothing to do with music,” Luzeniecki says. “Bands help students develop fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, self-discipline, citizenship and teamwork skills. My students have to follow multiple-step, sequential instructions. Rhythm counting is related to fractions. Music also offers the opportunity to learn to handle frustration and develop perseverance.”
Luzeniecki jokingly refers to himself as a “proud band geek” who has developed lifelong friendships through music. He and his wife have lived in Bradley for 30 years.
“As a band director, I’ve met students who have grown up to be soldiers, doctors, educators, pilots, police officers, firefighters and musicians, as well as great moms and dads,” Luzeniecki says. “Their parents give of their time and offer kind words of encouragement. And the band directors in the Kankakee area are an extended family. We call on each other when there’s a need. It just doesn’t get much better than that.”
Tyjuan Hagler Foundation Football Camp
Kankakee native and NFL player Tyjuan Hagler of the Indianapolis Colts is also dedicated to helping kids succeed. In 2007, Hagler started the annual Tyjuan Hagler Foundation Football Camp to help give kids ages 6 to 18 the tools they need to become better athletes – and better people.
“All my favorite memories are of my childhood in Kankakee playing backyard football,” Hagler says. “I started the camp because when I was a kid, I wished there was someone to mentor me. Now I have the opportunity to give back to the community I loved growing up in.”
The one-day camp happens the first Saturday in June and is free of charge. It includes sessions on the fundamentals of football, character building and safety skills, and awards and autographs with Hagler and other NFL players.
“We work on proper techniques, but the main thing is for the kids to have fun. We tell them even if they don’t make it as a professional athlete, they should stay in school and get a good education,” Hagler says.
McDonald’s provides free lunch for participants, and some years the kids get free sports physicals.
“The community helps out so much. It feels good to help the kids, and the best part is seeing the smiles on their faces,” Hagler says. “These kids are gonna be our future. And everybody wants our future in good hands.”