Camp Dallas: From a life lost to lives saved

Carl Cannon

Standing on the edge of a trout stream at Sankoty Lakes Resort in Spring Bay, Carl Cannon inspires the boys in ELITE with the prospect of fishing there at Camp Dallas this summer. (PHOTO BY DAVID ZALAZNIK)

“Getting corrected in the (prison) system is overrated. Get corrected here,” Carl Cannon told a dozen adolescents in the ELITE program as they stood looking out over Sankoty Lakes Resort glistening in cold January sun. “Today you’re being exposed to your tomorrow.”

The group toured some of the nearly 220-acre property still under construction in Spring Bay and heard about learning construction skills, trout fishing and cooking, but mostly about opportunities and pitfalls along the path to those opportunities.

“Focus. Be on your guard (back in the community) to who’s on your right and who’s on your left,” Cannon said. “You can space out here even during a pandemic. We are taking you to the safest environment. You can rethink yesterday and dream about tomorrow.”

Cannon, founder of the ELITE Youth Program at the Peoria Park District, is working with entrepreneur and philanthropist Kim Blickenstaff, developer of Sankoty Lakes Resort, to introduce youngsters in the ELITE program to a healing, learning and motivating environment.

For these youngsters whose lives are bookmarked by gunshots, violence and poverty, the prospect of trout fishing at a luxury campground seems implausible and unfathomable.

Cannon’s kids are living in one of the most toxic environments in the nation and are among the most challenged students in Peoria, deemed not only at risk of failure but at risk of assimilating into the violence of their environments.

What they were touring on a cold January morning was a way out of that violence.

Carl Cannon

Carl Cannon points out the main lake at Sankoty Lakes and Resort in Spring Bay during a tour with boys in his ELITE program. (PHOTOS BY DAVID ZALAZNIK)

This summer, if they focus and perform according to ELITE standards, they will attend Camp Dallas named after Dallas Atherton, a promising young man who committed suicide when he was 19. Atherton had grown up on the Sankoty property hunting, fishing, kayaking and swimming. His parents, Dwayne and Patty Atherton, were totally unaware of the darkness he was fighting. Their grief has transitioned through stages since his death in 2007, and when Blickenstaff approached them about creating a glamorous camping resort (glamping) on the property, they saw it as a way to create an ongoing legacy of help from their grief over their son’s suicide.

Blickenstaff started investing in central Illinois several years ago after a career in biotech in Southern California. He came with resources, vision and a commitment to central Illinois where he grew up.

“Too many children are at risk due to the destructive environments in which they find themselves, often through no fault of their own,” he said in a statement to Community Word. “If at Camp Dallas we can assist in correcting or softening that in some way, if we can play any role in putting them on a more constructive path, if we can make them feel better about themselves and their prospects in life, if fundamentally we can make them feel cared for and, in so doing, help them rise above their circumstances, then we are not only doing them a favor, which is the most important thing, but we are doing something important and positive for ourselves and our communities.”

Blickenstaff, who has already invested millions in central Illinois from renovation of the Scottish Rite Theatre in Peoria to the Betty Jayne Brimmer Center for the Performing Arts in Peoria Heights, said Camp Dallas could be the best community investment he can make.

Dwayne and Patty Atherton entered a joint development with Blickenstaff after decades of involvement with the Big Brothers program mentoring more than 20 children.

“To this day, all of them have stayed out of trouble. They’re assets to the community,” Dwayne Atherton said.

Camp Dallas will be an extra incentive for Cannon’s ELITE students as they work through the hard process of remote learning during the COVID pandemic. It’s extra incentive to focus on academics and behavior once school resumes.

Thousands of kids have gone through the ELITE program in the past 20 years and Cannon is always refining and improving the program. He trains “game changers” to help provide role models for his kids. Game changers, like Erica Miller, grew up in the same toxic, violent environment that engulfs the ELITE kids. Game changers were broken by the environment yet they emerged whole and with a strong desire to help others.

Miller had been abandoned by her mother and raised by her grandmother. Her father was a pimp.

“I had low self-esteem and was looking for love,” she said recently. “I was easily manipulated, got married early and he was abusive. I was beaten up, got broken ribs and was introduced to love heroin.”

She was in and out of prison twice. Then she was introduced to Cannon and ELITE. She found just mentioning ELITE was like saying Harvard or Yale when looking for help or employment in Peoria.

“ELITE opens doors,” she said, and today as a game changer with the program, she hopes to help youngsters before they need redemption. Prevention versus redemption.

Cannon, a former prison guard at the federal prison in Pekin, said, “The game changers are professionals. They made it out of the system and made a life for themselves. Who is better for youth outreach? They know how to get in a kid’s head, find the needs and help.”

Cannon credits the Peoria Park District with making ELITE possible.

“There are park districts in every community in the country,” he said. “ELITE can be a model for other park districts to help save youth.

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There is an open house at Sankoty Lakes Resort from 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sunday Jan. 31 followed by fireworks at 6 p.m. Directions: Drive north on Rout 26 toward Spring Bay.

Carl Cannon

Carl Cannon talks with boys in the ELITE program during a tour at Sankoty Lakes and Resort. Cannon often spoke from inside a structure on the property because many of the boys did not have winter jackets and the outside temperature was about 28 degrees. (PHOTO BY DAVID ZALAZNIK)

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