CHAMPAIGN — For more than a decade, Jennifer Payan has taken the title of “team mom” to the next level at Judah Christian.
As her five sons have starred across Judah’s basketball, baseball and soccer teams, you might say she is something of a star volunteer herself.
“I guess you could say I’m team mom,” Payan says. “So that comes with a lot of responsibilities. … I would coordinate meals. I would help out with fundraisers. I would arrange carpools, because Judah doesn’t have a bus.”
Austin Hamilton, Payan’s oldest son, graduated from Judah in 2012.
Dylan Hamilton followed in 2014, and Brandon Hamilton walked across the stage in 2016. Recently, Camden Payan graduated in 2021 and Evan Payan is set to graduate in May 2022.
Baseball is Jennifer Payan’s favorite sport to assist with.
She helped communicate practice times and kept the scorebook when Austin, Dylan and Brandon donned gloves during their time at Judah.
Camden and Evan didn’t take toward the diamond, but they completed the quinfecta of all five sons playing on Judah’s boys’ basketball team.
Since Austin stepped onto the court for the first time in 2008, the Tribe has had five different boys’ basketball head coaches.
Payan has helped them all through good and bad seasons from her perch behind her scorebook atop the stage in Judah’s gym.
“She just cares about the kids,” current coach Bill Ipsen said. “She wants them to do their best and just show up and play, and I just show up and coach. She does the little things that sometimes go unnoticed.”
Scoring games only scratches the surface of how Payan has impacted the basketball program.
Her dedication to detail has been evident every year at the basketball team’s season-ending banquet, which she plays a big role in planning.
Set to enter his fourth year with the Tribe this season, the first two banquets Ipsen had with Payan were among the most detailed year-end celebrations he has seen in two decades of coaching.
“It was pretty elaborate,” Ipsen said. “She had all these decorations out, and the kids really enjoyed it. Things like that really just make her stand out because, obviously, it could be done several (simpler) ways. But she always wants to go the extra mile.”
While pandemic restrictions forced the cancellation of the 2020 banquet, the show went on as scheduled after the shortened 2021 season.
Payan went the extra mile to make sure safety measures were met — every player had his own pizza and individually wrapped cookie.
Team meals before games wouldn’t be possible without Payan’s help, as she delivers food from local restaurants to the players.
In the past, she helped organize a goodwill gesture for the opposing team, placing drink coolers and light snacks in the visiting locker room before games.
Prior to Ipsen’s arrival, Payan would even host team meals at her parents’ house in Champaign. It was through those dinners that the qualities which drew her and her family to Judah Christian became evident.
“That’s the epitome of Judah and fellowship, you know, teammates getting to know each other,” Payan said. “This was JV and varsity, so you have freshmen eating with seniors. … It’s camaraderie and a team atmosphere.”
That sense of fellowship is a big reason why her children will have spent a total of 20 years in the building.
Though each of her children was given the option to attend a public high school after completing eighth grade, they all chose to continue their education at Judah.
It was a decision that Payan says became easier and easier as the years went by.
“We’re a very close-knit family,” Payan says. “We loved the fact that Judah was a Christian high school, and they could do chapel (and) learn the Bible. It was just a very family-oriented atmosphere (and we decided it was) worth, you know, me still working to pay for it.”
Owing to the close-knit nature of her family, she’s been a steady presence at all of her children’s events from the time they were young.
“I probably started keeping the book at the elementary level, you know, when they were in fifth grade for basketball,” Payan said. “They played Little League, so I kept score for baseball during their Little League years.”
Payan has scored baseball and basketball games ever since, though she concedes that she never learned how to score soccer. That didn’t keep her from lending a hand to the Tribe’s soccer teams when Brandon and Evan were a part of them.
She’s also helped fundraise for teams her sons were never on. From 2017 until 2019, she led a group of boosters that took care of every team that Judah fields.
“We would get (warm-up) shirts and plan a couple of different fundraisers,” Payan said. “Just trying to do what we could for all sports, you know, volleyball and girls’ soccer. Not just the ones that we were comfortable with (either) — we did track and cross country.”
A 1990 graduate of Centennial High School, Payan has maintained her volunteer status while working with the University of Illinois Police Department. She’s been with the department since 1992 and has served as the department’s Clery Act compliance coordinator for the last eight years.
In April 2022, about a month before Evan graduates and completes the family tradition at Judah, she plans to retire from the department.
Spending time with her grandchildren is a top priority in her next chapter; her oldest grandchild is four years old.
Her kids aren’t done competing, either.
Austin, Brandon and Dylan still play in a local church softball league.
Intentional or not, she’s is still finding ways to help out.
“I’m still going out to watch them play,” Payan said with a laugh. “Last night, the umpire asked me to keep the scoreboard. So I’m like, ‘Oh, no, I should not get this habit started right now.’”