Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center Superintendent Keith Willis is shown Tuesday in the commons area of the facility in Urbana.

URBANA — Want to do something about gun violence in Champaign and Urbana?

Wrap your arms around some of the people affected by it, engaged in it, talk to them, maybe make a difference in their lives and get paid to do so?

The Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center can use you. Immediately.

“I am eight detention officers short,” said a weary Keith Willis, superintendent of the facility in east Urbana, which is one of 16 in the state. “It’s meaningful, satisfying work.”

Willis speaks from experience. He’s been working in the criminal-justice system for 37 years, with more than half that time devoted to juveniles. He’s been superintendent of the juvenile detention center since 2017.

“You have to have a lot of energy. You have to be open-minded. You can’t have prejudged notions,” he said. “You have to be fair, consistent, have great communication and listening skills, great decision-making skills. You’ve got to have common sense. You have to have a bachelor’s degree.”

If that job description fits you or someone you know, Willis and his boss, Mike Williams, director of court services for Champaign County, beg you or that person to apply.

About two weeks ago, Williams cheered when an application crossed his desk. It was the first he had received since Oct. 21.

“It wasn’t that long ago, maybe four to five years, that we had a pool of 25 candidates any time we had an opening. We would go to our pool,” said Williams, a 20-year veteran of probation and court services, with four as the head of the department. “We know it’s not just us. There are 15 other centers in the state that Willis is in constant contact with.

“For probation departments, it’s the same thing. We have an opening in probation but not nearly the number of applicants.”

Willis said although the detention center involves corrections, its employees — 24 line staff at the round-the-clock locked facility — are probation employees who work for the court.

“I’m looking for all walks of life, whether you are interested in criminal justice or … recreation management,” he said. “Our job encompasses a corrections, sociology, psychology, mental health, education mindset. We do all those things.”

The pay is decent — over $20 an hour — and the benefits are good. Given that it’s a facility that must be staffed around the clock, shifts are slightly different. Employees work 75 hours in two weeks: six 11-hour shifts and one nine-hour shift. Days off differ, but every other weekend, employees get three days in a row off.

That versatility is part of the appeal for Jessica Hendrix. With a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a minor in sociology and six years working as a customer-service representative in a health care setting, she was up for the job.

“I enjoy a good challenge,” the 34- year-old single mom said of the position she’s held since April. “For me, it’s knowing I have a chance to make some difference in one of these kids’ lives.”

When she grew up in Champaign and Urbana, she didn’t have to deal with losing friends at age 13, 14, 15, 16, she said.

“I didn’t have friends carrying guns. I didn’t even know anybody who had a gun,” she said. “Seeing how things have drastically changed over the last two to five years, it’s been insane.”

In her opinion, teens need to be taught — and learn — how to address conflict without violence.

“A lot of arguments, beefs, get started over social media, where something so-and-so said was disrespectful about someone. They take it up a notch,” she said. “They won’t let it go. It has put them in a position where they feel like they have to protect themselves.”

For her, the sweet spot in getting through to the 13- to 17-year-olds in her charge often comes right after they’ve appeared before a judge.

“Usually, that is when they are feeling, reacting to what happened at court,” she said. “I try to help them see where they went wrong and why the consequences went the way they did.”

She may show them a video that can spark a discussion. Or sometimes, it’s playing a game of Uno while they talk it out.

“Some take it in. If I can plant a seed, even if it grows now or it’s something they come back to later in life, that’s what I hope to do,” she said.

She said she realizes not everyone is susceptible to change because of what they are exposed to at home. And she admitted it’s harder to persuade 17-year-olds with ingrained beliefs.

Williams said the children in detention often have had “significant trauma and have dealt with indescribable pressures.”

They are definitely not there for shoplifting.

Of the two girls and 13 boys, ages 15 to 17, in custody Wednesday, 11 were being held for crimes that involved guns: murder, aggravated battery with a firearm, possession of stolen firearms, and selling drugs while armed, for example.

Adult crimes, yes. Adult brains, no, Hendrix said. The oft-repeated phrase of “brains not fully developed” is apparent in the children detained.

Many just want to be kids, Hendrix said. They enjoy the structure that comes from taking classes; they like to read in their rooms and play chess; and they “love competition, especially card games,” she said.

Her favorite part of the day, she said, is recreation time led by staff.

“We play basketball, volleyball, throw the football. They are surprised I can shoot a basketball,” she said. “I see them have good teamwork. (They) know how to have fun without turning into something else.”

Williams said the employees at the detention center get along very well, a plus in any job.

“When you are in a locked facility, teamwork and camaraderie are important,” he said. “You need to be able to depend on those working around you.

“This is a tough job, but there are things about it that you can find ways to make a difference in these kids’ lives. There are a lot of people at JDC who have come to love their job.”

Hendrix agreed.

“I just focus on what I hope to do while I’m here. That gives me the push to get up and come in,” she said. “Even if the whole day goes up in flames, I’m pretty sure there’s something I can come away with that I felt good about.Box?

Applications may be submitted online at: http://www.applitrack.com/champaign/onlineapp/

For more information, contact: JDC Superintendent Keith Willis at kwillis@co.champaign.il.us or (217) 384-3780

Court Services Director Mike Williams at: mwilliams@co.champaign.il.us or (217) 384-3753


Mary Schenk is a reporter covering police, courts and breaking news at The News-Gazette. Her email is mschenk@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@schenk).