When Carl Cannon talks, people listen. As community outreach and social equity supervisor for the Peoria Park District, he serves as a liaison with public schools, law enforcement, faith-based centers and other community organizations, and is known for having developed the nationally recognized ELITE program. Originally founded in 2006, ELITE helps at-risk youth gain self-confidence, work experience and life skills that help them stay in school and off the streets, while the ELITE Re-Entry program equips ex-felons with the skills they need to succeed in the working world.
A 1978 graduate of Peoria High School, Cannon grew up in the inner city himself so he understands many of the challenges faced by today’s students. After a distinguished 20-year career in the military, he served as a correctional officer in the Pekin Federal Correctional Institution, where he dedicated his life to keeping youth out of prison in the first place.
Cannon’s remarkable list of honors and awards, both military and civilian, is seemingly endless. Beloved by his community, he has given his time to many local boards and is a popular speaker on youth outreach and crime reduction strategies. He was recently profiled on the Facebook TV series Returning the Favor, with hundreds of Peorians coming out to support him. Cannon and his wife Melinda have two daughters, Summer and Danielle, and four grandchildren: Logan, Melanie, Ava and Laila.
- Person who’s had the greatest impact on my life: I was raised in the church, so the easy answer for me is Jesus Christ. I’d also say my recently deceased mother, Mamie Pearl Espy. She raised six kids to grow up loving the Lord and to give 100% in everything we do.
- Three words that best describe me? I have difficulty answering this question, but according to my wife, the words are: Kind—he would give anyone the shirt off of his back; Powerful—when he speaks, people listen; and Charismatic—he has this inspiring charm to empower others to do better.
- What do you consider your greatest achievement? Personally: I have an amazing family with a wife of 37 years, two daughters (both with amazing husbands), and four grandchildren. Professionally: The creation of ELITE. A lot of people don’t know that ELITE came about due to a major community volunteer effort. It wasn’t just me!
- Who are your heroes in real life? Personally: My heroes are my Dad, Charles Henry Cannon, my Uncle Dr. Raymond Moszee, and my older brother William (Bill) Cannon. Professionally: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Barack H. Obama. They are my heroes because they fought the battles for the underprivileged and the under-served members of our communities.
- What are you most proud of? Personally: My wife Melinda and I both have high school diplomas and some higher education. On the other hand, both of our daughters have college degrees. Summer, our oldest, has a master’s degree and Danielle, our youngest, has a bachelor’s degree and is currently working to get her master’s degree. Professionally: I was inducted into the 2005 National Hall of Fame for Caring Americans in Washington DC.
- What’s the best thing about being you? Personally: The love and closeness of my siblings and that of my immediate and extended family. I also include my friends, my Peoria Park District colleagues and my ELITE family members. Professionally: If you could look at our kids through my eyes and hear them with my ears, you would experience what is best about being me. I am blessed beyond words, and it’s almost unfair to consider this a professional blessing.
- What is something that always brings a smile to your face? The smile on someone’s face when I or the ELITE program has helped them become a better person or helped through a tough time.
- What social issue fire you up? The disparity in public education fires me up in a hurry. It baffles me how unequal the quality of education can be from building to building in an urban setting. For instance, a third-grade student on the north side of Peoria and a third-grade student on the south side of the city have the same curriculum, but a learning gap exists. Poor children are not receiving the same quality education as middle-class or affluent populations are. This has got to be solved. Some of the causes, including absentee fathers, have been identified, and ELITE is helping to narrow the gap by being a force-multiplier.
- What book do you think everyone should read? The Bible. It teaches and inspires me each and every day. Other favorites include books on U.S. history. Our history is replete with amazing stories of faith, courage, leadership, ingenuity and what is best in all of us. Millions of these stories are being written every day by the people of our great nation, and all we have to do is look next door to find them. Finally, a long-time friend and author is helping me write my autobiography, to be published later this year. It’s an exciting project that will answer a lot of questions about what I do, why I do it, and what we, together, can do in the future to improve lives.
- What’s next? Personally: I want as many years as the good Lord will allow me to watch my grandchildren grow up. Professionally: Many years ago, my mom and dad taught me and my siblings that, “If you’re doing something good and you don’t share it, you should question whether it is really good.” The plan is to share the Peoria Park District version of the ELITE concept nationwide with other park districts. And that is really good! PM