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Kankakee embracing community support in state title game

Growing up in Kankakee, Tomele Staples and his friends grew tired of it.

In a smaller metro area just south enough of Chicago to be considered a suburb, seemingly the only time news from Kankakee made its way to a market large enough to carry TV news was when something tragic occurred or some new rankings system compiled new reasons why Kankakee isn’t a great place to live or raise a family.

Now a senior at Kankakee High School, Staples, the quarterback for the school’s football team, and his friends are making headlines for all the right reasons, as the Kays are set to play in their first IHSA football state championship in school history when they play Fenwick at 10 a.m. Saturday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

“The Kankakee community can be a divided community, with a lot of negative stuff going on; just for everyone to come together for one cause is really good, and to be part of the reason for that cause is even better,” Staples said. “That’s why a lot of people in our community are promoting all the good stuff going on with the football team.

“Everyone’s tired of the negative headlines associated with Kankakee and how anything negative is pushed to light,” he added. “Football has been something positive that everyone can get behind and that everyone is really excited about.”

The Kays are state-bound for the first time in football after knocking off Morton 41-14 at home in Saturday’s semifinal round. It improved their best-ever record to 13-0 in a season that has seen the team win its first Southland Athletic Conference title in program history and had several offensive and defensive players nearly rewrite the school’s individual record books.

And even when negativity and tragedy struck Kankakee again Friday night, when a shooting outside of the International Lounge left four people wounded just after midnight, the city stood behind their Kays and packed the stands to witness history Saturday.

And Kankakee Mayor Chris Curtis noted that the Kays’ monumental achievements on the gridiron have proved to be as vital to the community’s morale as much now as perhaps ever, noting the teamwork of an offense that has averaged 41.8 points per game and a defense that’s averaged 12.4 points per game.

“What was supposed to be a great weekend celebrating the football team unfortunately turned tragic with the shooting,” Curtis said. “That almost starts to overwhelm you, but when you see these kids do something inspiring like make it to state for the first time ever ... they’ve shed some light on what we can do and when we’re all together and on the same page, and that’s what they’ve done.”

The everyone Staples spoke of can be taken quite literally, as seemingly all of Kankakee County was on hand when the Kays topped Morton 41-14 in front of a jam-packed home crowd in last week’s semifinal round. Included in that crowd was Jimmy Smith, a 1983 graduate of Westview, the final year of the district’s split high schools — Westview and Eastridge.

Smith starred at Purdue and had a brief NFL career after his days as a Kayhawk. Now, along with his wife, Darice, Smith operates We Stand for Christ Jesus Ministries in Kankakee, said that when the Eastside Bulldogs youth football program had its postseason banquet earlier this year, several members of the Kays football team made their impact felt off the field the same way they do on it.

“Some of the things the kids said, us adults couldn’t have said it better,” Smith said. “There were six to eight players there, and when the kids hear from other younger people, the same words we say, when they say it, it impacts them more.”

“I was really impressed with their maturity.”

That maturity is something head football coach Derek Hart saw with this group when he took over three years ago. When the Indiana native moved to Kankakee, he was coming in to a city that is largely only associated with the negative contents of it.

But as someone who spent his own high school days in a place with a rough perception — the east side of Indianapolis — where he won the second of his two football state titles as a player at Warren Central High School, Hart knew that the community he was coming into had much more to offer than its perception.

“Kankakee gets this perception that the kids are bad and the community is bad, but it was an easy adjustment for me,” Hart said. “I came from a high school where that’s the perception. The east side of Indianapolis has a dark cloud over it, but once you get to know the kids they’re great kids like from anywhere else, and it’s real easy.”

Hart isn’t from the area, and neither is Kankakee athletic director Ronnie Wilcox, who is from the same southern Illinois town, Mt. Carmel, that Hart’s father, John, once coached football in. But Wilcox knows the power of sport, and he knows the power of community, and he especially knows how powerful the two can be when combined.

“I think it starts with just understanding the power of sports, no matter where you live, and impact it can have on one person, or the culture and climate of a school and the energy and excitement of a community,” Wilcox said. “As a sports person, and then a coach and athletic director you grasp that more, and at Kankakee it feels like an almost different level of a sports-hungry community.

“Trying to provide those opportunities to achieve what this team is doing, it’s why we do what we do.”

Harold Terrell has worked in the Kankakee School District for 39 years in several roles, most currently the assistant director of maintenance, and has been a presence for several of the high school sports program, as well as coaching at the middle school level.

But even Terrell hasn’t worked at the school since the last time there could have been something this monumental to happen within the high school’s athletic department.

“It’s one of the biggest historical achievements ... as far as team sports, I just think this has been the most fantastic team since maybe the 1952 [boys] basketball team that went to state,” Terrell said. “I’m just so proud of these boys and these coaches.”

With so much community sport and historical significance already achieved, this Kays team has already cemented its legacy at the high school and in the community.

And Wilcox believes the fact that they understand their importance is why they’ve accomplished what they have.

“What’s special to me about this football team is they fully understand that it’s way more than just about them ... they play for each other, they don’t care about the credit and they truly play for each other and this community,” Wilcox said. “And to see a group of young men, still teenagers, knowing great things can’t be achieved without that mindset, is inspiring.

“I’m just proud of how humble they’ve been and how they’ve embraced the fact they’re playing for something a lot bigger than themselves.”

Small Business Saturday kicks off across county

Small Business Saturday will kick off on Saturday, Nov. 27, and businesses in Kankakee County are ready.

While Black Friday has long taken the shopping spotlight, for the last decade or so, Small Business Saturday — or Shop Small Saturday — has stepped up to the plate. A total of $12.9 billion was spent last year on Small Business Saturday (down from $20 billion in 2019) and a Mint Intuit survey finds that 70 percent of Americans shop small.

Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed said the main reason for shopping small is to keep money local, with 38 percent saying they want to support their community and local creators. And, when it comes to small businesses and local creators, Kankakee County has no shortage.

You'll find many of those creators at Moon Cookie Gallery, which will be hosting a Small Business Saturday event from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 27 at its shop located at 187 S. Schuyler Ave., Suite 150, in downtown Kankakee.

“With over 60 various local and regional artists, you’re sure to get your holiday shopping done with our one-stop-shop,” the small business said in an event notice.

The event will feature raffle prizes, goodie bags, and new and festive items available for purchase. The gift shop is filled with original works of art, handmade items, gifts and more all made by local artisans.

The day devoted to all things local will also be celebrated in Bradley.

“Shop Small Saturday is a pre-activity for our Christmas parade, and the theme is Jingle All the Way Down Broadway, so we invited all of the businesses from West and East Broadway to do a window display as a contest,” said Khamseo Nelson, the village’s marketing and community engagement coordinator and deputy clerk.

She said that contest aims to create awareness for businesses on Broadway while encouraging residents to shop small. Keep an eye on the village’s website for a list of participating businesses.

There will be a ballot — which will be available on the village’s website and in the print edition of the Nov. 24 Daily Journal — where shoppers can vote for their favorite window display. The ballots can be deposited in the dropbox at Village Hall, 147 S. Michigan, Bradley. The ballot deadline is Monday, Nov. 29.

Nelson said the winner will be announced at the Christmas parade on Dec. 3, and the winning business will get to make a donation to the charity of its choice.

“We really want to encourage shopping and buying local, especially after the year that we’ve had with shipping delays,” said Nelson.

The village will be getting in on the fun as the lobby will be decorated on Black Friday, the same day that the village’s holiday lights will go on. The snowflakes will go up on the following Monday to kick off the parade week.

Shop Small Bingo

The Kankakee County Chamber of Commerce has developed a Shop Small Bingo game featuring a number of businesses in Kankakee County as a way to encourage support of small businesses.

That bingo card is another item you can find in the Nov. 24 Daily Journal. Shoppers will receive a stamp on their bingo card at each location visited. Each bingo win is a chance to be entered into raffle prizes ranging from $100 to $500 and a grand prize of a Whirlpool Freezer from Frank’s Appliance Center and Sleepsource.

For more information on the chamber’s initiative, see the bingo in the Nov. 24 print edition or visit kankakeecountychamber.com/shop-small.

Belson Steel Center looks to move operations to Bourbonnais

BOURBONNAIS — The president of Belson Steel Center Scrap said the company would like to move down the road from its current location in Bradley to property it owns in Bourbonnais.

The new site would be located just across the Canadian National Railway tracks off of Larry Power Road, less than a quarter-mile away from its current location, according to Belson president Marc Pozan.

Pozan explained the company’s plans at last week’s meeting of the Village of Bourbonnais Community and Economic Development committee.

He said the move would be a multi-million dollar project. The company owns 27 acres of land at the proposed new site’s location that is zoned for industrial use.

“We’re ready to start this,” Pozan said.

Belson’s current location sits on 17 acres on the southwest corner of Larry Power and Illinois Route 50, which is part of Bradley.

“More than 30 years ago, there was a John Deere dealer, auto repair shop and cornfields that surrounded the business,” Pozan said.

Northfield Square mall and Water Tower Plaza, which includes Target, popped up in the 1990s in Bradley, which became Kankakee County’s retail center.

Now, Belson’s 17 acres is prime real estate because of its location near a major commercial intersection.

“It’s an easy parcel [of land] to sell,” Pozan said.

The company has had no recent offers to purchase the location, he added.

The plan

Pozan told Bourbonnais trustees he would like to get part of the scrap business relocated by spring 2022 in the first phase.

That portion would encompass the southern part of the Bourbonnais property. Located on the north side of Larry Power Road is Nucor Steel.

Bourbonnais Mayor Paul Schore said discussions are in the early stages.

“It’s a process,” he said. “We would like to do our due diligence. A number of things have changed in the proposal.”

One point Belson and Bourbonnais officials agree on is the company will provide funds for upkeep of Larry Power Road due to the heavy truck traffic.

A tall berm around the proposed site will help the appearance of the business, according to the plans.

A proposed second phase would transfer more of the operation to the new site, including moving the baler and shear.

The addition of a railroad spur track into the facility is also planned. Pozan said he has contacted Canadian National officials.

“This proposal will take a combined effort between us, and officials with Bradley and Bourbonnais,” Pozan said.

An earlier attempt

Belson officials attempted to make the move in 2016 after months of public meetings.

Concerns from village officials and the public about the company’s steel-cutting operation and its environmental impact proved to be a roadblock.

The steel-cutting operation took place outdoors and emitted much smoke. Belson was already making plans to add an air-purification system to alleviate the problem and made it part of its agreement with the village.

This agreement was scheduled to go before the board for final approval, but was delayed and then never approved.

Pozan said that part of the steel-cutting operation at its Bradley facility has been transferred to the company’s location in Chicago Heights.

Kankakee County records 13 COVID deaths this month

Kankakee County is still battling with the COVID-19 virus, as the county recorded 13 more deaths in November and saw an increase of 1,000 positive cases. The county has recorded 19,200 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began in early 2020, according to County Health Administrator John Bevis, who gave his monthly report Tuesday at the county board’s executive committee meeting.

“We’re at 282 deaths [total],” he said. “Now, we’ve had an additional death this week.”

Despite the deaths and an increase in positive cases, Bevis said the county is in better shape than it was in November 2020, which saw a major surge in cases.

“But we are continuing to still see a small surge in our community,” he said. “It’s nowhere near the numbers of last year’s November. That was awful for all of us. There was also no vaccine available at that point. But we were doing 200 cases a day last year throughout all of November. Right now we’re currently doing anywhere from 60 to 80 a day for the last couple of weeks.”

With the small surge in cases, Kankakee County’s positivity rate is at 6 percent compared to 3.7 percent in October. The positivity rate for Region 7, which includes Will and Kankakee counties, is at 5 percent.

The county has recorded 105,300 total vaccination doses, with 49,032 people fully vaccinated. Kankakee County’s vaccination rate is 44.6 percent, well below the national average of 59.2 percent and state average of 61 percent.

“The health department is continuing to schedule appointments for COVID vaccinations on Tuesdays and Thursdays by appointment,” Bevis said. “We have started with the pediatric vaccinations, and we had an event a couple of weeks ago. We’ll be having the second shot for those individuals on Dec. 4, that is a Saturday. And then we’ll be scheduling future ones going from that.”

Bevis said they’re not seeing a lot of demand for vaccinations for the 5- to 11-year old age group.

“We’ll just have to wait and continue to watch that and see how it goes,” he said.

Board member John Fetherling asked why the county’s vaccination rate is so much lower than the rest of the country.

“Is there a reason why that is?” Fetherling asked. “Or are people getting them somewhere else and you don’t know about them?”

Bevis said the vaccinations are counted by your address, and the rates vary across the state. On the state’s website, there are counties with lower rates than Kankakee and many that have higher vaccination rates.

“A lot of factors play into that,” he said. “... It’s people’s choices, and obviously, when you get into smaller communities such as a Kankakee compared to a DuPage County or the City of Chicago, a lot of factors will play into that and or businesses that are requiring individuals to get shots. Then that inflates that number and makes it look a little bit higher. So we have struggled here in our county for a number of reasons that we have expressed over the past year since the vaccines have been available.”