Kankakee High School's athletics have been on the upswing this winter, thanks to a record-setting girls basketball season, a top-notch boys basketball team and the revival of its wrestling program.
And student-athletes and coaches now have begun to translate the success from competition to their community.
Student-athletes and coaches from boys basketball, girls basketball and football visited King Middle School in Kankakee on Wednesday to discuss various topics related to education and the importance of developing a strong work ethic.
"I enjoy taking on the role of being a role model and a leader," football coach and 1997 Kankakee graduate Omar Grant said. "As one of those (student-athletes) that's been through the grind and been in their shoes, it's great to come back and instill what was instilled in me."
Earlier this month, the boys basketball team spoke at Kennedy Middle School, the other middle school in Kankakee's district at the urging of basketball coach Chris Pickett and Superintendent Generva Walters.
"One of the things (athletic director) Ronnie Wilcox emphasized to me when he interviewed me was wanting someone who is visible in the community," Pickett said. "We wanted to start with the younger kids because if you drill it in their heads now, by the time they get to high school, it's second nature.
"It allows them to understand their expectations of us and also allows them to set expectations for themselves."
After the trip to Kennedy was a success, the school decided to open it up to students from other sports as well. Junior Tabetha Jones, whose game-winner against Bishop McNamara last week gave the girls basketball program its first Elite Eight in school history, was on-hand Wednesday.
"My favorite part about this is that the children have something to look forward to and to know I have an impact on some of their lives," Jones said. "Kids are the key to better and healthier communities, and when they start working on their sports, character and education at a young age, it will stick with them as they carry it throughout their daily lives."
Community engagement specialist Bill Yohnka helped Walters and Pickett organize the visits. He said they provide the younger kids with a glimpse at the things they will need to work on as they get closer to high school.
"Kids think that they're a long ways off from high school in fifth or sixth grade and really, it's not that far away," Yohnka said. "Sometimes, it takes a kid who's been there to tell them to start preparing now, and for them to matter to a high school coach is a big deal."
The experience also has been beneficial for the student-athletes. According to Pickett, it has served as a bit of an eye-opening experience for some of his players.
"There are some other things within athletics that we want to clean up as far as students being apathetic to sports from the standpoint of understanding what it means to have a strong work ethic and fight through adversity," Pickett said. "We feel that in going to the lower levels, we can change the culture in the district."
According to basketball forward and football wide receiver T.J. Wicks, these visits also have opened his eyes to his stature within his own district as a role model to the younger kids.
"It feels great to have someone younger look up to me," Wicks said. "As a role model, I can't do anything bad and I need to be a good leader and show that I'm a good person."
The district hopes to continue and expand their inner workings between high school students and younger students in the district.