On November 17, one of the most violent tornado outbreaks in state history rocked central Illinois. No town was hit harder than Washington, Illinois. Tornadoes leveled nearly one-fourth of this close-knit community's homes and businesses, leaving thousands of people's lives devastated.
As he watched TV reports showing the tornadoes' massive destruction, especially video of children crying next to piles of rubble where their homes once stood, Jim Cook decided he had to help. For the last 25 years, Cook has dedicated his career to providing resources, mentoring and peer mediation to kids and teens, most recently by founding the Midwest Sports Academy in suburban Huntley. Serving kids ages 9 to 16 in the suburbs and the Rockford area, the non-profit organization provides a supportive environment that teaches youth how to build a strong foundation for their future.
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"I felt moved to do whatever I could to reach out to them," Cook said. "I'm passionate about making a difference in people's lives, primarily the lives of children. I wanted to extend a helping hand to them, especially at Christmastime."
Cook's Midwest Sports Academy mobilized nearly a dozen organizations to support a relief effort for Washington residents. Individuals, families and businesses dropped off donations at South Elgin High School, The Einstein Academy of Elgin and Pro Fusion in Geneva. The humanitarian drive generated hundreds of blankets, toiletries, medicine and other critical supplies for needy families. The outpouring of generosity required a large moving truck to haul the necessities downstate. Students from the Midwest Sports Academy joined Cook and his staff in loading the truck with the donated items.
"Students, families, local business owners -- so many folks gave generously to the drive. It was an honor to be part of it," Cook said.
Cook and Tory Gum arrived in Washington November 27 to present the donations. The volume of supplies that donors gave to victims touched the townspeople so deeply that the Warehouse in Washington asked Cook if the Midwest Sports Academy could lead a Christmas toy drive for children in Washington victimized by the tornadoes.
"There was no way I could tell them no. How could anyone say no to such a significant need?" Cook said.
The Einstein Academy, South Elgin High School and Pro Fusion agreed to serve again as drop-off centers. The same organizations that supported the relief effort enthusiastically signed on to join the toy drive, including the South Elgin Police Department, Wells Fargo Advisory, PepsiCo, T's N More and the McHenry Community College women's basketball program.
The toy drive, which ended on December 13, resulted in hundreds of donations. Children will receive a variety of gifts this Christmas, from baby and toddler toys to Barbie dolls, stuffed animals, books, art supplies, games, stocking stuffers, DVDs, headphones and gift cards.
Cook and a volunteer drove another moving truck to Washington December 15 to deliver the toys.
"This experience has blessed everyone who contributed to the toy drive and relief effort as much as it's blessed the families in Washington," Cook said. "Donating much-needed gifts is helping make the holiday season a little more joyful for victims of the tornadoes."
Improving the future for children is the motivation for why Cook established the Midwest Sports Academy in 2012. The academy offers sports and educational programs that teach youth the core values of a strong work ethic, personal discipline, honesty, respect and inspiration for making positive life decisions.
"I started this program to see children accomplish their dreams," Cook said. "This program provides me and the community with an opportunity to make a difference for all the children who don't have the financial means or just the chance at a hopeful future. They learn to develop good citizenship and college readiness skills."
The academy features a host of programs, from four-year curriculum planning and college prep to career and outdoor activities, mentoring and sports programs and mission trips. Program offerings are designed to meet kids' specific needs. The academy serves students from a wide range of communities, including Rockford, Elgin, Aurora, Bartlett, Streamwood, Schaumburg, South Elgin and Crystal Lake.
For more information on the Midwest Sports Academy, visit www.midwestsportsacademy.org, call (847) 809-8978, email firstname.lastname@example.org or check us out on Facebook (www.facebook.com/MidwestSportsAcademy) and Twitter (www.twitter.com/jimcook0825).