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Community honors those who served this Veterans Day

The community came together Wednesday at Kankakee Community College to honor those who served during the annual Veterans Day Recognition Ceremony.

Following a reception, the ceremony began in the auditorium with the posting of the colors, national anthem and Pledge of Allegiance. Guest speakers Craig Zelhart and Peggy Moran addressed the crowd along with the college’s Veteran’s Association co-advisors Kendra Souligne and Cari Stevenson and president Michael Boyd.

Zelhart, a 2016 KCC grad, served eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps as a staff sergeant and machine gunner. The lifelong Kankakee County resident continues his service as a local police officer. “Veterans truly are the best of us,” Zelhart ended his speech.

Moran, the training director for the American Veterans Service Dog Academy based in Manteno, was joined by the academy’s current and past veteran and canine students.

Using the event as a training opportunity, many veterans stood to commend the program and its impact on their lives.

Stevenson closed out the speeches with information on the Mark Rodriguez Memorial Scholarship, started in honor of the late veteran that became a staple around the campus for fellow veterans and students alike. Rodriguez, a 57-year-old veteran Marine who died in February 2018 from cancer, helped lead the charge to develop a Veterans Center at the school.

The $500 annual scholarship will go to a student who displays perseverance in community service. To donate, visit kcc.edu/donate and choose the Mark Rodriguez Memorial Scholarship in the designation.

GIRLS SWIMMING: Bradley-Bourbonnais' Zirbel headed to IHSA Athletes with Disabilities State Finals

Savannah Zirbel has faint memories of the immediate aftermath of the tragic accident that left her without most of her left leg and part of her left arm when she was 2 years old. But for the most part, the Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School freshman doesn’t know what it’s like to live a perceived normal life.

After a devastating lawnmower accident in 2009 changed her life forever, Zirbel grew up knowing she was different, as did some of the kids that grew up with the girl with a prosthetic leg.

Aside from finding success in softball, where she uses a prosthetic arm to bat, Zirbel couldn’t find many physical activities that could accommodate her limited leg mobility.

But when she first jumped into a competitive swimming pool, that changed.

“When I first started, I had no idea what I was doing,” Zirbel said. “I couldn’t pace myself, but the more I got told what I could do to keep up with everybody, the more I enjoyed it.

“I could be just like everyone else in this sport.”

Zirbel began swimming for the Kankakee YMCA’s Stingray program, where she quickly became friends with fellow swimmers Abby Glidewell and Isabella Kirkpatrick, the former of whom now swims with her at the high school level for the Boilermakers.

And despite just two years of swimming experience heading into her freshman year in the pool, Zirbel has already found herself on the big stage after she swept all four of her events at last week’s IHSA Lockport Sectional — the 50-yard freestyle, 100-yard freestyle, 100-yard breaststroke and 200-yard freestyle — to earn a spot at this weekend’s state final meet in the IHSA’s Athletes with Disabilities division.

For the freshman who hopes to someday swim in the Paralympics, winning all four events — and entering the state meet with the top qualifying times in all of them — was great, but secondary to what didn’t show up on her nearly perfect stat sheet.

“It was really nice. Most of the time I really enjoy talking with the other paraswimmers, because it’s so fun to cheer everyone else on, too, and helps you feel better about yourself,” Zirbel said. “Winning those [events] put a little power into wanting to be so much better, because I want to [achieve] some really high goals.”

Her coach at Bradley-Bourbonnais, Jena Dudek, has coached state qualifiers and qualified for the finals herself when she was a high schooler, but coaching a paraswimmer has been a new experience, one Zirbel has made unforgettable for her coach.

“She’s taught me a lot. When I look at her, anything is possible,” Dudek said. “With hard work, regardless of any obstacles you have, and perseverance, you can pursue any dreams you have. I look at her and it blows my mind.

“She doesn’t let her disability affect her anywhere; the pool, the weight room or school. She has a very positive outlook on everything,” she added. “I almost have to channel that and realize I can carry that on my own, too.”

Zirbel’s mom, Jennifer, swam in high school at Tinley Park and in college at Benedictine University and is one of her coaches with the Stingrays. While she loves seeing her daughter carry on the family tradition in the pool, she also realizes how perfect the sport exemplifies Savannah.

“She feels at home — it’s individual but it’s a team sport,” Jennifer said. “It shows her uniqueness — how well she works with others and how hard she works on the side.”

And as she’s grown up into not just a great swimmer, but also a softball player, cello player in the school orchestra, an artist and a writer — she and her best friend, Reese Freedlund, even wrote a book together — Savannah has gone from a young child whose classmates would look differently at and call names into a young woman whose classmates look to and call on for inspiration.

“I’ve been told by a lot of people that they look up to me, and it’s nice, it really is,” Savannah said. “But being looked up to has some kind of pressure ... just a little.”

Savannah puts pressure on herself, too. While she’s competing in a division with fellow paraswimmers for the state series, she spent the regular season swimming on the regular varsity team, where she held her own for the most part but has found room for improvement.

“Most of the time I feel like I can do so much better,” Savannah said. “There’s a lot of people better than me and I wanna be just as fast as them.

“When I compare myself to them it’s so frustrating because I keep getting told I can’t compare myself to them, [I’m] not the same as them.”

But no matter how well she does in the pool, Jennifer already knows how much of a success her daughter is.

“There’s no words to explain it, it hasn’t fazed her,” Jennifer said. “She’s never known other than [her disability]; she’s embraced it and shown everyone, if you’re gonna tell me I can’t, I’m gonna tell you that I can and then show you that I can.”

Savannah will take that attitude into the FMC Natatorium this weekend for the state finals. But regardless of the outcome, she knows she’ll have a great time continuing to meet people like her who have found solace in swimming.

“I would like to know more about [the other swimmers]; for a few [at sectionals], I didn’t even know their disabilities at first,” Savannah said. “There could be so many different things that make you disabled and I just want to get to know more about them, not just their disabilities, but as a person.”

Redevelopments in the works hope to spur continued revitalization of downtown Kankakee

KANKAKEE — Perhaps not since the demolition of numerous downtown Kankakee properties in the 100 block of South Schuyler Avenue has there been such the opportunity for change in this area.

With the pending redevelopment of the former Midland States Bank, 310 S. Schuyler Ave., the promise of a 92-unit apartment building immediately east of that property, as well as the redevelopment of the Pope Brace building, 197 S. West Ave., a revitalization of downtown Kankakee may be set to begin in a robust way.

The apartment building and Pope Brace restoration are expected to cost in the $40 million range.

The Midland property, the two-story, 22,000-square-foot structure, is being planned for a $22 million facelift and a new use as a business incubator. The Pope Brace structure is being eyed for potential residential use.

However, Brian Loftin, senior vice president of development with J. Jeffers & Co., made sure to note during this week’s 58th annual meeting of the Kankakee Development Corporation that he and other developers are only benefiting from business strategies previously put in place by those who believed in this region.

Without those efforts — which include tax benefits and financing options from various programs within the KDC district and in other city areas — it would somewhat more difficult to attract those willing to develop here.

And it doesn’t hurt anything to have the scenic Kankakee River flowing only a few blocks away, Loftin noted.

While Loftin said the goal was to have the former Midland’s project already under construction but things never quite take place as planned. He said construction should begin within the next month or so as there are already pending contracts for occupancy by April 1.

Those contracts, he stressed, mean that time is of the essence.

Loftin noted the well-publicized supply-chain issues may throw a few curveballs at the development, but the goal is to be moving full steam ahead by year’s end. He noted he already has a demolition permit in hand to begin work.

Regarding downtown development, Loftin said the goal is to have other developers see what is taking place here and be willing to invest their money here as well.

He noted J. Jeffers is not looking to be the only developer here.

“We are helping to set the standard,” he said of the planned developments. “[KDC and city government] create what this downtown could be. The economic tools are absolutely critical.”

After the meeting, Loftin said he expects the apartment project and the Pope Brace redevelopment to begin in spring 2022.

He noted he has found Kankakeeans to be much more critical of themselves than is warranted. He said the city has its issues, like every community does, but there is great opportunity.

“It’s about reimagining space. We are very anxious to get this started,” he said.

Kankakee County Board Chairman Andy Wheeler, a part of the KDC’s panel discussion, noted the better things go for Kankakee’s east side, is the way the future will go for the entire area.

Barbi Brewer-Watson, Kankakee’s economic and community development executive director, said social media often ridicules downtown plans. And while many of those opinions are from those who are uninformed, it fosters a perspective that doesn’t help.

As a community, she said, it is time to let go of the negativity.

She said great experiences can be had in downtown Kankakee.

“You have the power to bring people downtown,” she stressed to the audience.

Loftin added that neither he nor the J. Jeffers company is looking at Kankakee as an opportunity to acquire property, rehab it and “flip” it.

“We are in this long term,” he said. “Community is not just a thing, it’s the thing.”

Analyst: Gas prices not likely to reach $4 by year’s end

Ten years ago this week, the average per-gallon fuel price nationwide was $3.43, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The nation was at the midpoint of a four-year run when per-gallon gas prices hovered in the $3 to $3.90 range. The surge subsided in late 2014.

Those prices have returned and compared to 2020, when the nation was in the grips of the second wave of COVID-19 infections and stay-at-home restrictions, the per-gallon cost is now $1.30 higher this second week of November than it was one year ago.

And while $4-a-gallon gasoline does not appear to be on the horizon, industry analysts say, it is likely that prices will not be doing an about-face anytime soon.

Patrick DeHaan, a petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com, did note consumers could see a 10- to 20-cent hike in fuel prices before the closeout of 2021.

“These prices are happening across quite a bit of the United States,” he said as the nation rebounds from the pandemic-induced economic shutdown. “This year couldn’t be more of 180 degrees different than last year. [Fuel] demand is through the roof.”

DeHaan noted oil companies were shutting down and laying off workers a year ago.

While production has been tempered here with the closing of some oil lines, DeHaan noted the root of this problem is COVID-19.

“Oil companies would have been producing,” he said. “This issue is all born out of the pandemic.”

Once production began to stall, the economy started to rebound, meaning demand simply has out-paced supply. He noted 600 million more gallons of gas are being consumed every day versus this same time frame of 2020.

Factor in China’s coal inventory dropping and its greater reliance on oil as well as Europe’s natural gas shortages places a greater demand on oil and supply simply is not keeping pace, DeHaan noted.

“There is an insatiable demand not being met by supply,” he said.

And this is not an issue expected to quickly subside.

“What lies ahead we really don’t know. I don’t see record prices ahead, but there will be elevated prices through the winter,” DeHaan said.

He said OPEC has started to increase its oil production, but that will take some time to catch up with the demand.

“There is simply too great of a mismatch between supply and demand,” he noted.

Regarding the prospects of $4 gasoline, DeHaan is confident that barring some type of major global issue, he doesn’t anticipate that barrier being cracked.

“Oil is a global product,” he said. “We wouldn’t be in this seat if not for COVD-19. ... It should not get significantly worse, perhaps slightly worse.”