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Nominee: Carl Cannon

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Local Not for Profit: Peoria Public Schools Foundation

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A two-way street

Carl Cannon strives to make respect ‘the new cool’

He’s loud and boisterous. He gets heard.

He’s also charming and kind to most, scary and firm when needed. People respond to him.

He’s intelligent and knowledgeable. People listen to him, respect him.

Carl Cannon’s mission in life is to get kids to stay in school and on the straight and narrow, to keep them from life-damning mistakes. He’s getting it done in an ELITE way, turning potentially troubled and at-risk youth into students he believes will someday be leaders in the community.

“Believe it or not, some of these kids think prison is cool, like some kind of badge or something. I want to destroy that myth and teach these kids what kind of life they can have with some effort,” Cannon said. “Access to knowledge is the pathway to change. But the hardest part about success is getting started. So, if we can get them started, most will have the opportunity to succeed.

“One thing we do know is that we cannot help them until they figure out they have to help themselves. Everybody is able to give some effort, if they want,” Cannon said.

Cannon is a native of Peoria, the son of retired Peoria police officer Charles Cannon. But before his father got on the police force he worked low-paying jobs that kept the family in one housing project or another in Carl Cannon’s early years. “We lived in Taft Home, Harrison Homes, Warner Homes. I remember it. It was tough. But it’s like I tell the kids, it’s not where you come from that matters. It’s how you choose to live,” he said.

Cannon chose to leave Peoria after high school, enrolling in the U.S. Army. It became a career, many of the years in service in the Military Police. After retiring from the Army after 17 years, he chose to come home to Peoria. “I was one of those who was in a hurry to get out of Peoria as soon as I could. Now look where I came back to,” he said.

To stay in law enforcement Cannon became a corrections officer in the federal prison system. He was assigned to the federal prison in Pekin, where he worked for six years, earning such awards as Rookie of the Year, Public Servant of the Year, and the system’s prestigious Selective Placement Program Manager of the Year for the North Central Region.

That was when he decided on a new path. “It dawned on me that I was good at the wrong thing. I was good at keeping them in prison. I wanted to be good at keeping them out of prison. I wanted to do something to make kids understand what prison was like and that no matter how bad they thought they had it, it could always get worse. Some of these kids needed to change their path or it was going to get worse for them,” he said.

He accepted a job with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Peoria so he could have daily contact with the youth there. Wanting to help them find self-worth, he approached the Peoria Park District just before the RiverPlex opened in 2001 and asked if they would hire some of the kids he was working with to work at the RiverPlex.

“I told them I would get the kids ready for the job and be responsible. They just needed the opportunity,” he said. Not only were RiverPlex officials receptive, the next day they called Cannon and offered him a job running the youth department at the center.

“I was stunned. I didn’t think I was qualified. But I took the job because I felt I could do more for kids from the inside than from the outside,” he said.

Others around the area began taking notice of Cannon’s work with youth and about six years ago, when the city was going through a crime surge involving high school-aged youth he was asked by Mayor Jim Ardis to serve on a special task force looking at ways to reverse the trend. He was on a panel that met with the public in late 2006, a panel that included Peoria’s leading police officials, prosecutors and civic leaders.

“I’ll tell you, I was on an ego trip before that night. But by the time that event was over, when the public asked us questions and we had no answers, I was on a guilt trip. It was that same night ELITE was born,” he said.

“I sat in my car in the parking lot after that event and really felt guilty. I started thinking about what we could do, what we had to do really, to help these kids,” he said. “I realized kids are arguably the safest when they are at home or at school, so it needed to start at those places. We needed to get them jobs and get them off the streets and out of the alleys at night. We needed to change perceptions of what was cool for these kids and teach them that respect is a two-way street.”

ELITE stands for Economic Leaders Integrating Trained Employable youth, but the acronym isn’t used much these days. Rather just the word is used to symbolize that the kids who go through the program are “a cut above the rest.”

The purpose, to have local business and civic leaders help train the students, has not been shortened or changed, Cannon said.

The idea for ELITE in hand, Cannon approached then-District 150 Superintendent Ken Hinton and Mayor Ardis and shared his thoughts to start a 10-week program for sophomores and juniors in inner-city high schools. Those thoughts included that there needed to be time set aside during school hours for the program or it wouldn’t have the same meaning. He promised if any of the kids had attendance problems or their grades worsened, they’d be out of the program.

In February 2007, ELITE was launched at Central, Manual and Woodruff High Schools. The first things Cannon told the students was that they were cowards unless they pulled their pants up to their natural waist, learned to regularly use words and phrases like “please” and “thank you” or showed spirit by smiling. “I said if they couldn’t do those things, they should go ahead and leave. But if they stayed those were just some of what I’d expect from them.”

All stayed that day, 90 kids total from the three schools, kids recommended for the program by school counselors. They weren’t the top 10 percent or bottom 10 percent in the school, but kids in the middle who could aspire to the top or become role models for those on the bottom. By the first graduation of the ELITE program in May 2007, 58 kids were still in the program. “I fired 32 of them because they didn’t want to stick to the rules. I told them they could come back the next year, but that the rules were going to be the same,” he said.

The ELITE program has expanded to include five high schools, including Richwoods, Dunlap and Limestone. There is now a kindergarten through 8th-grade program at Trewyn School, which started last fall. “There are now more kids in ELITE programs than in Key Clubs and in some sports programs,” he said. “The bridge to the future is the classroom.”

That expansion came about because of another guilt trip Cannon took after that first ELITE graduation. “I saw all that hope and realized the need for the program shouldn’t be limited to inner-city schools. What we teach these kids are things that are important no matter where they live or go to school.”

The kids know Cannon as “Corrections Officer” and in the first four weeks learn what is known as the program’s anthem: It’s a list of phrases for success and they must recite it when Cannon walks into a room and says “communicate.”

They are: “Please; Thank you; You’re welcome; Yes, ma’am; No, ma’am; Yes, sir; No, sir; Excuse me; I’m sorry; Help me; I have …; I can …; I will be …; Hope.”

“We want saying those words and phrases to be the new cool,” he said.

The kids learn through Cannon and a host of volunteers — including police officers, firefighters, retired teachers and administrators and business leaders — how to write a resume, interviewing skills, and other ways to land and keep a job. If they graduate from the program and become “ELITE Certified” they are able to apply for part-time work at an ELITE job fair.

In its first five years the program has helped more than 500 youth find part-time jobs that give them spending money, keep them occupied and help build self-confidence. Among the top employers for ELITE Certified teens are HyVee and the Park District. “We love these employers but I have to say, they aren’t really doing us any favors. That’s because we are sending them kids who are job-ready,” he said.

“I also don’t think it’s any accident that crime among high school-age youth is at an all-time low,” he added.

Last fall, Cannon started ELITE Re-Entry, aimed at helping state prisoners in work release programs ready to start a new life. “I learned that most of these people have regrets about what they did to put them behind bars, but regrets won’t get them a job. There are some things you can’t change and the past is one of them. But we will help them if we can and we tell them reality is they will probably have to start in a job or shift that nobody else wants and work their way back,” he said.

Cannon said he is able to grow the program because of “an incredible group of volunteers” and because of the “unbelievable support” he gets from his wife Melinda and from his boss, Bonnie Noble, executive director of the Peoria Park District and another finalist for The Peorian of the Year Award.

“Bonnie is tremendous. She has been supportive all the way,” he said.

Cannon frequently shares his ELITE program concept with audiences across the country, including Washington, D.C. He was awarded the 2004 National Caring Award and inducted into the National Caring Hall of Fame. Among his other awards was the 2011 Peoria Martin Luther King Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award.

With all that he remains humble. “I’m blessed, that’s all I can say. I love Peoria and I’m so glad I came back. I get to see its future almost daily from my standpoint, that future is bright. There is nothing dim about what’s going on here,” he said.

Peoria Public Schools Foundation

When Carl Cannon took his ELITE Youth Program to Trewyn School, the first non-high school to have the program, he knew he was going into District 150’s worst performing school.

It was also the school in the city’s lowest income district and he found the needs there went beyond teaching children to respect others as well as themselves. For instance, to help the students at Trewyn adapt to being in a K-8 environment — including older children mingling with young children — the district established a system whereby each grade is color coded and will wear a certain uniform so as to better distinguish one from the other.

The problem is, not many of the students or their families can afford the uniforms, Cannon said.

That’s why he chose the Peoria Public Schools Foundation to receive the $10,000 award from The Peorian if he is selected as winner of the inaugural The Peorian of the Year Award. He would specify the money be used to buy uniforms for the students of Trewyn School.

“We had to scrimp and beg this year to get enough uniforms for these kids and I’m still not sure we got enough. At that school, uniforms are critical,” he said.

For more information about the Peoria Public Schools Foundation go to its website at www.ppsfoundation.org, email Foundation@psd150.org or call (309) 672-6738.