Unique mentoring program saves lives

Local News

PEORIA, Ill., — A program unique to Peoria is using the streets to save lives. The Elite Youth Program is hosting a summer camp called Peoria Design, geared toward helping young men who they say are on the fast-track to prison.

This summer camp is three days a week throughout the entire summer, to prepare trouble kids for the upcoming school year.

The kids learn life skills, such as best hygiene practices and respect, and various school subjects on Mondays, they participate in community service and athletic exercises on Wednesdays and fun activities on Fridays.

Carl Cannon, the founder of the Elite Youth Program, recruits mentors that can relate to the participant’s current lifestyle. He’s using the streets to break “street mentality.”

“We’ve involved those who have been there, done that [and] regret that,” Cannon said. He hopes that their past experiences will encourage them to save others from going down the same path.

Auston Wood, Peoria Design mentor, said he’s been shot 13 times “running the streets” as a kid.

“I just don’t want to see them go down the same path,” Wood said. It’s only two routes from the streets, that’s jail or death, so if I can help prevent them or actually tell them that and let them know because I been through it and [I] come from the same place…then maybe I can help them.”

Breon Smith said this program has helped him tremendously.

“This program keeps me out of a lot of trouble, these mentors been through a lot so I don’t want to go down their path,” Smith said. [I] don’t want to go to jail, get shot, none of the stuff like they been through.”

His peer, 13-year-old Karon Hopkins has already made some bad decisions.

Before I was in this program I was running the streets you feel me. I was fighting…,” Hopkins said. “I would probably be out on the block somewhere, no telling what I [would] be doing my mom don’t know she at work.”

He’s was sent to the Juvenile Detention Center after hanging around the wrong crowd.

Hopkins also experienced the pain of losing a friend to gun violence, which helped him realize his life could have been cut short simply because of who he hung around.

“If I was dead my mom would lose her mind,” he said.

Now Hopkins’s mindset is renewed and he knows which path to follow.

Cannon periodically asks the young men if they are chicken or eagles. He said the problem with being a chicken is that they stay on the ground, but eagles fly. Every kid in the program now refers to themselves as eagles.

“I don’t want to stay below, I don’t want to stay on the ground, I want to move up, I want to be high,” Hopkins said.

Cannon said the change he’s witnessed in the young men from the beginning of the program to now is like night and day.

“These are young men today, six weeks ago they were little boys with grown men thoughts,” he said.

A few of the program coordinators emphasized that there is no such thing as a bad kid and said that the kids are just in a bad environment.

Peoria Design athletics coordinator, Johnny Tate said showing the young men that they are cared for is the first step at helping them grow.

“With a little time and…just a little bit of care you can see a difference in their attitude and the way that they are being receptive to the things that they’re being taught,” Tate said. “I try to instill that confidence in them and let them know that somebody cares about them and that the sky is the limit for their dreams, this is just the start.

A little love can go a long way, but loves comes in different forms.

“Love also means not telling them what they want to hear, it’s telling them what they need to hear,” Cannon said.

Carl Cannon, founder of the elite youth program says he wants to give a special thanks to the Peoria Park District, St. Paul Baptist Church. Peoria charter coach and anonymous donors.

He’s also looking for more resources and volunteers for a program dedicated to changing the lives of youth in our community.

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