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Q&A: Carl Cannon looks to the future, reflects on assisting at-risk members of the community

Carl Cannon looks forward to helping the Elite program he founded with the Peoria Park District continue its mission as an independent not-for-profit community outreach organization.
Joe Deacon
Carl Cannon looks forward to helping the ELITE program he founded with the Peoria Park District continue its mission as an independent not-for-profit community outreach organization.

Carl Cannon says he's not about to stop trying to help people in Peoria get their lives turned around.

Cannon recently concluded 21 years of employment with the Peoria Park District, where he developed the ELITE program as a way to keep kids and former prisoners out of trouble through an alternative safe school and a re-entry program.

Now Cannon looks forward to helping ELITE continue its mission as an independent not-for-profit community outreach organization.

WCBU reporter Joe Deacon talks with Cannon about the future of ELITE, and what first motivated him to help at-risk members of the community. This conversation is lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

When you look back at your years in public service, what motivated you most to helping the community?

Carl Cannon: Maybe the light going on. I'm unusual in that maybe I'm one of those beneficiaries of seeing that light come on, on a kid who might be down and out (or) on an adult who might be down. But watching (when) that light goes on, you see it once you want it again. So you keep at it until you get that next one and that next one, and they just– it's grown over the years. So I'm not– retirement is such a poor choice of words, because I'm not retiring. I'm getting ready to double down on seeing those lights come on.

So when you say that, what is next? What are you hoping to do moving forward?

Cannon: Well, right now I run (an alternative) school here in Peoria and I get students from maybe 18 different buildings all at one time, and watching the lights come on. And it's actually happening here, so we're going to put this down and we're going to record it, see how we're doing it (and) make sure it's documented. Then we're going to share it, because there are other communities that need the same kind of support – so if it's good and you don't share it, then you better question whether or not it was good in the first place.

Tell me about what ELITE has been able to do over the past 21 years, and what you hope to continue to do as you transfer from the park district to a nonprofit?

Cannon: Well, we came about when Peoria was going through a crime surge, and the crime surrounded high school age youth; they were just “off the chain,” as the kids will put it – running through our fairs and festivals, like Steamboat Days, March Madness, and just disrupting them. They called them mobs. So it was back then that I thought about how we could pull them out of that gang, and it became ELITE, which became a job prep (program).

Getting them to understand when you go to work and get off a real job, you too tired to hang in the streets and alleys; you're going to look for a pillow, (and) the earlier you look for a pillow, the better your education is going to be the next day. So we started with that job prep (for) kids who were not the worst kids, but not– it wasn't top 10, it wasn't bottom 10; it was that group in the middle. We felt like if we can move the middle towards the top – they say it's lonely up there – if we can get movement in the middle and the middle is just above the bottom, now we’ve got a role model.

If someone on the bottom can see someone just like them moving forward, the mindset has to be: “If they can do it, then maybe I can do it.” Getting young people to understand (that) I can't help you until you’re ready to help yourself, and what might help you – and this is just me – go back in the classroom, sit there, shut up and listen. Use your ears, not your mouth and your eyes.

Before you joined the park district, how did your career in the military and as a corrections officer prepare you for this program?

Cannon: Well, it's in the prison system that I learned that most people who make those poor decisions, they do regret it. I also learned that most people who make those poor decisions wouldn't wish their plight on their worst enemy. So it was there that I got a message to take out to the young people that weren't in there, and it basically was “Don't do what I did.”

People called it Scared Straight; I didn't do Scared Straight, I did Straight Talk, which means I'm going to sound like an adult and I'm going to ask you to listen. If you can't handle that, I'm going to ask you to leave because I'm not going to let you interfere with the child here that wants to hear what we have to say.

It's been amazing because nobody ever leaves. I mean, we’re thousands, hundreds of thousands of youth later, all over the country I've been (with) that same Straight Talk message – not the same delivery maybe, depending on where– and this is not an urban thing; this is rural, it’s suburban. It's kids. It's anybody who can turn on a television and get tricked with a two-hour movie, a 30-minute sitcom, or a two-minute, one minute commercial during the Super Bowl. It's about kids – all kids, not just urban kids.

How did your 21-year association with the Peoria Park District allow you to work toward your goals of serving Peoria’s young people?

Cannon: Well, it was an accident. RiverPlex was a big old hole in the ground; I saw an article in the paper and I was at the Boys & Girls Club, having left the prison. I went to see that general manager to get jobs for kids I was prepping in the Harrison homes. The general manager asked me if I wanted a job. I told her, I said, “I looked at your jobs board, I line up with nothing you have. I don't have the background, the education.” They said just interview.

So I prayed on it and I decided to interview, but before I interviewed I went to work for the Boys & Girls– I was dressed. I said, “This what you got to do.” Now I didn't expect to get the job, but they offered it and I had to pray on that; I didn't want to leave my kids (at the club). Then I realized with the park district, I could do more to help those same kids from the inside than I could from the outside. So I became a part of the RiverPlex and the Peoria Park District.

And what's it been like for these 21 years, then?

Cannon: I'm wearing tennis shoes every day. Prior to that I was in boots and a uniform (with) the military, the Bureau of Prisons. (With the park district), I got to run and play and just be me. I'm loud, but a soft loud.

So why was it time now, why did you decide to step away from the park district?

Cannon: The park district let me explore a lot of different things, but please understand, a lot of the things I was doing in this park district are not traditional recreation programs. So how much more could I ask them to do – run a school for alternative kids? No, that's not fair to them. So I’m in a position now where I've got some credibility, and I've had some experience because of this park district. Now I'm going to help these Game Changers save some lives.

What are you proudest of during your time with the park district?

Cannon: My friendships, the family of people. I call them “park warriors,” all of them, from the guys out here cutting the grass, to the cabinet makers up into administrative. We're all a pretty tight-knit family. This Board (of Trustees), who you can walk up to no matter where you are and say, “hey, how are you doing?” and they're not looking at you like you don't belong there or you shouldn't approach them. It's from top down, an open atmosphere, so I love that and that's what I'm trying to promote in my ELITE world.

What are your other plans moving forward, and how do you intend to continue your mission?

Cannon: Well, we're going to do a lot of professional development with a lot of people who are my team that have “been there, done that.” I'm going to create a team of paraprofessionals on behavior management, so I'm working with Illinois Central College to get the courses that will allow these men and women to become paraprofessionals in behavior management. That will allow us to go in the schools that are having problems, the issues that they have and help them get them under control. Maybe not with people with bachelor's or master's degrees, but paraprofessional degrees where they can recognize themselves at a previous age and see “this is what I would’ve needed.” That would be what I'd hope we can create there.

What else changes with ELITE as it becomes a nonprofit now?

Cannon: Well, we have to be good stewards of the dollars we're given, so we've got a strong board and we've got a strong executive team. That's not my forte; I'm going to be “Carl Cannon the programmer.” But we're going to be a role model in that aspect, as well as in the individual aspect of interacting with kids and adults every day. So I'm excited about that.

You mentioned (being) a role model. How do you believe your career path can serve as an example to young people in the Peoria community?

Cannon: Well, I was born and raised right here in Taft homes, and I believe my family and I are models that “if we can do it, you can do it.” Here’s what I tell game changers, so the public should know: If you're in ELITE and you're an adult and you're working for us, you don't get a day off. That means to them (when) the clock stops at 4, if you go to Kroger (and) you have an undesirable reaction from a clerk at Kroger, you can't get out of role; you’ve got to stay above, because our kids will be in that Kroger too, and the moment you take a day off of being who you're supposed to be, they’ve lost a role model – and we're not going to do that. We're not going to be fake, phony. We’re going to be real.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.