APEX Academy teams up with RISE to empower Lansing youth

July 12, 2018

By Denise Spann

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Picking up where his father left off, Kaleb Thornhill wanted to give back to the Lansing community.

What better way to do it than to engage, educate and empower Lansing high school football players from single-parent and low-socioeconomic households through his APEX Academy.

APEX Academy student-athletes and staff write 10 labels to describe themselves during the RISE module about identity and diversity.

“Watching my father pass away and knowing that his story ended before I wanted it to, I continue to pick up and write those chapters and leave a legacy,” Thornhill said. “When I say legacy, I’m talking about legacy of impact. I’m able to do that now for these kids and come back to my community to show them what they can do to make that impact, as well. So, in the future they can come back and serve at APEX and continue to build up the next generation … It’s so important that we take this community of Lansing and continue to build it brick by brick.”

Kaleb’s father, Charlie Thornhill, played football for Michigan State University in 1965 and 1966, when the Spartans won both the Big Ten and national titles. Kaleb followed in his footsteps by playing for MSU from 2003 to 2007. Today, he is director of player engagement for the Miami Dolphins and founder of APEX Academy.

APEX Academy is a three-year program designed to help student-athletes academically and professionally. The academy invited the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE) to deliver diversity and leadership programming around the themes of respect, character and identity Sunday, July 8, during a weeklong football camp.

RISE’s Andrew Mac Intosh leads student-athletes and staff in a discussion about which labels are and aren’t important to them.

“RISE integrates with our values perfectly,” Thornhill said. “With our core values on Sunday being respect and character, RISE fits into what we’re trying to embody and teach these men.”

Student-athletes selected for the academy participate in workshops and football camps. It’s the only football camp in the country that has training for sports, ACT/SAT prep, professional development, creative workshops and life skills classes.

“We don’t want them to allow their circumstances to dictate how they show up every day,” Thornhill said. “It’s important to us to instill those values in them that they can do something positive for their family name, and that they don’t have to go through and do some of the things that they see currently.”

Among the 24 boys attending the workshop Sunday was Lansing Everett High School senior Timothy Allen.

APEX Academy founder Kaleb Thornhill, left, with Lansing Everett High School senior Timothy Allen

“The impact that APEX Academy has had on me is that now I know people that care about me, and I have a family outside of my family,” Allen said. “I know there are great people out in the world that are willing to help me accomplish my goals. I joined because I thought it’d be a good opportunity for me and it would help me and my family, in terms of getting to go to college, and I’ve gotten so much more.”

Andrew Mac Intosh, RISE’s national director of leadership and education programs, led and facilitated the modules with the APEX student-athletes.

“The boys were really engaged,” Mac Intosh said. “One of the goals of our content is to engage people, to have them see these type of discussions, these types of conversations as something they can have fun with and be interested in. It was good to see them enjoy it in that regard and to reflect. I also thought it was good for people to talk about some of the takeaways they had. They were able to say, ‘I learned about surface and deep diversity, and I learned what respect is.’ A couple of the kids came up to me afterward and asked me, ‘Well, what is respect?’ So, I’m always glad to see those things.”

The first RISE module the student-athletes participated in was about identity and diversity. The module allowed student-athletes to explore labels they use to describe themselves, and others use to define them, as well as the power behind those labels. The students also saw emphasis on the diversity that exists within the group and inside them as an individual.

Student-athletes and staff work in groups to build the tallest tower during the building communities module.

“I personally thought the identity activity was the best because we don’t take a lot of time ourselves to define our identity and what we embody every day,” Thornhill said. “It was important for them to see who they are and what happens when your rip up those labels and how you would feel if some of those are taken away, meaning you can’t show up as yourself every single day. It’s important for them to live a genuine authentic life that is true to themselves, not adjusting to someone else because they believe it’s what they should do.”

The last two modules of the day were about respect and building communities. In the respect module the students discussed the word, what it means and the ways in which they can demonstrate it. The building communities activity was a way to explore the definition of leadership and learning what it means to be a leader by working in teams to build the tallest tower in the room from straws, poster board, newspaper and tape.

“My favorite part about today was how we interacted with each other and came together as a group, while learning about respect and all the great things it can get you in life,” Allen said. “My favorite activity would have to be the building activity because it took a whole group effort, not just half the group. It took us all to intervene and do something to make the structure come together.”

Andrew Mac Intosh, left, RISE’s national director of leadership and education programs, with Kaleb Thornhill, APEX Academy founder and Miami Dolphins director of player engagement

Watching the students throughout the training allowed Thornhill to see who was grasping the concepts and which students would need more help along the way. Thornhill wants these young men to be the best versions of themselves, which is why having the student-athletes participate in the RISE diversity and leadership training was so important.

“I think it’s important to realize how many different perspectives are out there, and I think it’s important for them to seek to understand before being understood,” Thornhill said. “We want them to have their own core values, have their diverse perspectives about others and learn to really accommodate to other people and what they value. So, it’s a mutual respect.

“Having RISE come in made perfect sense to truly take them to a point where they’ve never been before in life. What I mean by that is seeing race differently, seeing ethnicity differently, understanding what diversity really means and being able to break down the barriers that maybe stop them from interacting with certain groups at certain times. It’s going to benefit them not only in this camp and what APEX Academy does all year long, but in their schools and their homes, as well.”

Denise Spann is a summer 2018 intern for communications and marketing in RISE’s Midwest office in Detroit.

APEX Academy student-athletes and staff pose with APEX founder Kaleb Thornhill and RISE’s Andrew Mac Intosh.