It’s 8:00am as I make my entrance into the gymnasium at the Jackie Joyner Kersee Center located in East St. Louis. For weeks now I have taken notice of this constant stream of “little people” ages 3 to 5 years of age arriving at the Center as mom, dads, grandparents and other love ones escort the minors into the Center and sign them in. Later I would learn that more than 150 such “little people” are attending the SIUE Jackie Joynee Kersee Head Start Program. During my one hour of exercise walking the 145 yards per circuit every 90 seconds, I noticed some of the children are still arriving as I leave for the day as the caretakers are vested in giving their child a “Head Start” in life.
This particular morning I noticed what appears to be Christmas Gifts stacked more than three feet high and three feet wide. My mentor taught me that anytime the lens of your eyes have to take a “second look” there exist a potential photograph for the trained eye and aspiring photo journalist. After obtaining approval from the staff person for JJK I took several snap shots of the gift wrapped packages and planned a return after 10am. I am back at the JJK Center at 10:30am.
In the middle of the gym seated before the gifts I find Santa Claus and his helper as the “little people” one by one are ushered to Santa to receive their Christmas Gift with a smile. SIUE staff members can be heard coaching the little people to say “thank you” before making room for the next child awaiting in line. One class at a time arrive to the gym and take their time waiting in line to see a Santa that “looks” like them as they are greeted with a smile and if brave enough allowed to sit on Santa’s lap and whisper their most precious requests for Christmas.
I entered into the hall way of the JJK Center and observed previews of coming attractions as the Jackie Joyner Kersee Foundation and SIUE are working together to complete the new construction to the current 41,000 square foot center as “eight” new class rooms and other amenities will soon be ready next year. JJK’s photograph is out front at the receptions desk area with her holding a sign which reads, “I Am Here To Make A Difference“. I have flashbacks of this past summer and fall when it appeared that all roads led to the JJK Center. Organized football and soccer teams played during the day and “at night”. Many of the games were going on at the same time with the “little people” from the ages of 6 to 14 years of age were totally engaged in their sport of choice. Cars park outside of the construction area, people coming and going and the different teams where the “JJK” initials were observable on many of their uniforms.
It was at Russellville, Arkansas, more than three decades ago, while on vacation where I first took notice of Jackie Joyner, her mentor and coach, Nino Fennoy and what became known as the Nino Fennoy Connections. I was there because my cousin Jackie was also a track star and we traveled to observe her at this particular event. We were surprised to find our hometown folks there in the competition of the Summer AAU events. Here was Jackie Joyner “before” the Olympic Medals. before being noticed and claimed by the International Community as the Athlete of the Century and before gracing the box of Wheaties, the Breakfast of Champions. The track team from East St. Louis, under the coaching and mentoring of Nino Fennoy gave Russellville a preview of coming attractions.
I search the archives of the Metro Star and founds priors stories and events relating to JJK. An example when she made an unscheduled return visit to East St. Louis to be here for her mentor when his father died. The many times that JJK made it known how proud she was of her hometown roots and how she overcame obstacles in her life and turned them into opportunities. But the key and what stands out the most was her mentor and how he used sports as the “hook” to foster the pursuit of becoming All-American in the class room before becoming All-American in Athletics. There’s no doubt that JJK learned this lesson well as the JJK Center appears at time to be the very center and heart of the community. There is a reason why the Center services more than 3000 children a year and the numbers are growing. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, “I AM Here to make a difference,” should make us all ask ourselves, Why AM I Here???