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Officials urge precautions for unsolicited seed packages

Unsolicited packages of seeds from foreign countries have been reported in several states and by at least one resident in Kankakee County.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture released a statement Tuesday cautioning people who receive unsolicited seeds not to open the package, plant the seeds or throw them out.

People who receive these packages should keep them unopened with their original packaging and labels, including mailing labels, until further instruction is provided, the department said.

They should also email their first and last name, phone number and the number of packages received to

A similar warning was also issued in Wisconsin.

Bourbonnais resident John Benoit, a retiree who operates a small greenhouse at home, said he received a package of seeds in the mail that he did not order.

It was an ordinary brown shipping package with Benoit’s name and address on it that appeared to be from China.

While Benoit has ordered seeds online before, he knew he was not expecting this order.

Benoit said he notified the Illinois Department of Agriculture when he received the package and is following their precautions.

“We don’t want to cause another pandemic over some seeds,” he said.

He said the seeds looked to him like melon or cucumber seeds, which he noted he would not be able to plant this time of year regardless of where they came from.

Chad Miller, manager of the Kankakee County Farm Bureau, said he strongly suggests people follow the guidance of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agriculture officials to not open, plant or throw the seed packets away.

If thrown away, the seeds could end up growing in a landfill, he said.

Miller said officials have studied some of the seeds and concluded that they might be a type of weed that grows in China.

“We have to maintain the integrity of our agricultural system,” Miller said. “Weeds can be noxious, cause trouble and damage the environment if they were to take off.”

Crystal Sauder, education coordinator with the Kankakee County Soil and Water District, said concerns around planting these seeds are based on the unknown factors of their origin and intent.

“No one asked for them, and they don’t know why they are getting them,” she said. “If it’s an invasive species, we don’t know what it might do to native wildlife and plant life in Illinois or wherever they are planted.”

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Community outreach position focuses on youth crime prevention, intervention

Hamim Lillard knows how hard it can be to stay on the right path when it seems like the world is against you.

Growing up in both Kankakee and Hopkins Park, Lillard was in three different foster homes from ages 6 to 18 and admits he sometimes felt like he was only taken in so his foster families could receive government checks for his care.

He said that like many children who grow up in foster care, his desire for unconditional love from a caregiver caused him to lash out.

Lillard entered the juvenile court system and spent several years in his 20s in prison on drug charges. He found it difficult to start over with felonies on his record.

“Basically, I was a product of the environment,” he said. “I was greedy. I wanted money. I saw that the streets [were] an avenue, even though I felt like I always had the capability to take another route.”

But prison counselors, boot camp and Kankakee County Circuit Judge Clark Erickson’s faith in him helped to steer him in the right direction, he said.

With financial assistance from a prison rehabilitation program, Lillard earned a general studies degree from Kankakee Community College in 2014 and is in the process of going back to school to further study social work and psychology.

When Lillard decided to study those subjects, he knew attaining employment would be difficult because of his background. However, he persevered remembering the counselors and psychologists who worked with him in prison and had criminal backgrounds.

“For some reason, people gravitated toward those counselors more,” Lillard said. “Not that they are better than counselors who don’t have a background, but for some reason people feel like when they can relate to you, it hits home more.”

On Wednesday, 36-year-old Lillard sat in Kankakee County State’s Attorney Jim Rowe’s office on the first day of his new job as community outreach specialist, in the same building he once attended his own court hearings, and beamed with excitement talking about how he would help to intervene with troubled youth before they enter the prison system.

Lillard said he was already feeling the excitement earlier that day when getting his new work ID at Jerome Combs Detention Center and meeting the staff there.

“To see the other side of Jerome Combs, that was powerful,” he said.

The community outreach specialist position is a newly created initiative through Rowe’s office in partnership with Kankakee School District 111 and the Kankakee County Board.

“Getting a community outreach specialist into our office I think is going to help us reach out to the community, build some confidence and credibility between the criminal justice system and the community, and hopefully let people know that we are here to help,” Rowe said.

Rowe said Lillard reached out to him two years ago asking how he could help the community.

“When this opportunity came around, it was just made for him,” Rowe said.

Rowe said teaming up with Kankakee schools was a logical partnership because early opportunities for intervention are often the most effective.

“The best way to keep people from ending up in the adult criminal justice system is to reach them when they are teenagers or children heading in that direction,” he said.

In this role, Lillard will focus on prevention and intervention efforts, particularly with youth in Kankakee schools, but also involving other communities in Kankakee County. He is already brainstorming seminars, assemblies, expungement events and festivals for the future.

Lillard will also be involved in the office’s Diversion Accountability Program, which allows nonviolent misdemeanor and first-time low-level nonviolent felony offenders to divert from traditional prosecution and toward sentences that involve education, community service and restitution.

Lillard said he is most looking forward to getting involved with one of the office’s newer programs, I Can Go to College. The goal is to help thousands of kids realize their potential to get an education and get financial help for school regardless of their backgrounds, he said.

“When you encaptivate a mind when it’s younger, it’s 10 times easier to help mold and steer them in the right direction versus when they get older,” Lillard said. “The older you are, the more you get settled into your ways and the harder it is to break old habits.”

Part of the conditions of Lillard taking the job is that he pursues an education, which he said he is happy about because it will keep his mind fresh with ideas and set an example for the children and adults he works with.

“I want to actually help some people who went down the same path as me,” Lillard said. “I can help them realize that they can get into college as well; it’s just you got to want it bad enough.”

Lillard said his main goals are to walk into the position with an open mind, represent the community and state’s attorney’s office and find ways that he can help. He added that, although he would not wish prison on anyone, he is grateful that he found opportunities to turn his life around.

“I’m glad that everything in my life happened the exact way that it happened because it made me the person who I am,” he said.

More state money coming to local infrastructure projects

Daily Journal staff report

Kankakee County now has another $2 million to help with infrastructure projects as part of the second round of Rebuild Illinois grants announced Thursday by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Transportation.

This second round includes grants totaling $250 million that the state has awarded to address local transportation needs. In the first round of grants, announced a week ago, Kankakee and Iroquois counties received a total of nearly $165 million for four large transportation projects.

In Thursday’s announcement, several local entities received grants including the following: Kankakee County, $635,518.67; city of Kankakee, $302,466.11; Bourbonnais, $302,466.11; Bradley, $174,590.51; and Manteno, $101,096.64.

Tops among the county’s 17 townships were Norton with $44,395.21, Pilot with $42,823.50, Momence with $36,357, Pembroke with $35,329.81 and Otto with $33,163.09.

Iroquois County government bodies received a total of $1.3 million with the county itself awarded $231,031.73. Other entities receiving funds included Watseka with $57,720.86, Gilman with $19,924.96, Clifton with $16,124.50, Onarga with $15,026.10, Milford with $14,345.09 and Chebanse with $11,665.

Eligible projects include road and bridge improvements, traffic signal upgrades, new storm sewers and bike paths, sidewalk replacement and other long-term maintenance needs. Projects will be selected and managed locally with IDOT oversight.

“For too long, Illinois has relied on legacy infrastructure investments without tending to them properly to maintain our status as a transportation hub for the nation. Rather than build on our storied history and strong foundation, our critical infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate,” Pritzker said in a release.

“Thanks to dedicated funding in the bipartisan Rebuild Illinois plan, we’re investing in our roads and bridges and cementing our leadership position as a global transportation powerhouse.”

The local component of the Rebuild Illinois grant program is distributed via the state motor fuel tax formula, which resulted in an additional $860 million for counties, municipalities and townships in the past fiscal year alone.

“In Illinois, we don’t have just state or local roads and bridges, but one system of transportation that stretches across all modes and involves multiple partners working together,” Acting Transportation Secretary Omer Osman said.

Passed in 2019, Rebuild Illinois is investing a total $33.2 billion into the state’s aging transportation system that includes: roads and bridges, transit, waterways, freight and passenger rail, aviation, and bicycle and pedestrian accommodations.

ICE plans site evaluation for possible detention center at Dwight

DWIGHT — A project to build a federal immigration center in Dwight that was presumably dead after a state law was passed in June 2019 seems to be moving forward, if a letter received this week by village officials is any indication.

Village President Jared Anderson received a letter from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) regarding an environmental assessment of the site for a previously proposed 127,000-square-foot facility that would house 1,000 detainees awaiting deportation hearings. The site is an 80-acre parcel near Interstate 55 and Illinois Route 17.

The Dwight Village Board approved the zoning and annexation for the land use with a 5-2 vote in March 2019 at a tense meeting which drew about 200 people, many of whom came from outside the area to protest the plan.

In the following months, the Illinois House and Senate passed legislation that would ban privatized immigration detention centers in Illinois. That bill was signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in June 2019. Banning the development of private, for-profit detention centers in the state, the law put an end to the project in Dwight. It also prohibited local governments from contracting or having any financial transactions with such a facility, except for providing food, medical care or other ancillary services, according to a June 2019 report from Capitol News Illinois.

Illinois was the first state to forbid the practice. At the time of the signing, Pritzker made it clear he intended for Illinois policies on dealing with immigration to stand in sharp contrast with those of President Donald Trump. The bill signing came at a time when Trump was directing ICE to begin mass roundups of migrant families facing deportation orders.

CBS Chicago 2 reported that it obtained the letter, which Anderson confirmed to the Daily Journal that he received it as well.

“We received the letter that different news agencies are reporting,” Anderson said in an email to the Daily Journal. “It just stated that an environmental assessment is planned to be done.”

The letter from ICE dated July 23, 2020, came with this subject: “Preparation of an Environmental Assessment (EA) for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) proposed contract award for the procurement of detention services at a Contractor owned/ Contractor operated Detention Facility to be constructed in Livingston County, IL.”

Anderson told the Journal that village officials “are still in the understanding that [state] legislation passed last year prohibits private detention centers.”

Dwight is located 30 miles west of Kankakee in Livingston County.