When Michelle Clark Magnet High School students got their first look at their new fitness room, it took some time for it all to sink in. The sheer amount of new equipment. The fact that it was all theirs. The way the fitness room was painted with fresh, crisp school colors. 

But what really struck many students was that virtually everything — from the inclines to weight lifting equipment to dumbbells — had the school’s name on it.

The upgraded fitness room was made possible thanks to Lift Life Foundation, a Boise, Idaho-based non-profit that builds state-of-the-art fitness centers in schools that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them, and Optimum Nutrition, a Downers Grove-based sports nutrition company. 

The two organizations chose Michelle Clark, located at 5101 W. Harrison, late last year from among several schools that applied. 

According to a statement released by Lift Life, Michele Clerk was chosen because of its’ “compelling” video application, as well as the fact that, in spite of being located in an area “that struggles with crime and economic conditions,” the school was able to achieve a 100 percent graduation rate.

The Sept. 28 grand opening was about more than just getting students some new fitness equipment. 

The space was named after Carolyn Brown, a long-time Michelle Clark resource officer, who died before the renovations could be completed. Her fellow officers, school staff and loved ones all attested to Brown’s character and the impact she made on students, adding that they couldn’t think of a better tribute to her than a space that would make the students’ lives better. 

During the assembly that took place ahead of the opening, Dylan Cooper, the director of Lift Life Foundation, said that in the months following the decision the renovations faced many roadblocks, but they kept going.

“We couldn’t give up on this school no matter what,” he said. “This is not just us, this is not just me, this is the great group of people [who] wanted to give back to the community.”

The new fitness center includes a large weight room and a smaller space with running equipment. Michelle Clark Principal Charles Anderson, Jr. said that he was “totally amazed” by how the space turned out.

“I am so excited so proud, and I’m so happy to keep [Brown’s] legacy going,” he said. 

Anderson also noted that the fitness center wasn’t just for students.

“It’s for the entire staff, and teachers and parents,” he said. “We’re going to all be fit.”

Derrick Barnes, a junior football player, was among the first students to get into the fitness center and try out the fitness equipment. He said that what he saw was a huge upgrade compared to what the room was like before.

“I can’t put it into words how [much things have changed for the better],” he said. “We didn’t have a weight room, there wasn’t much to work with.”

Barnes said that he appreciated what Lift Life Foundation and Optimum Nutrition did for his school, saying that it was great to see companies give back. He added that he thought the new fitness center would be a great benefit not just to his team, or even for the student body in general, but for the community as a whole.

Karen Lasose, a junior and a member of the school’s track and field team, had similar thoughts.

“It’s amazing, it’s going to help us a lot,” she said, adding, somewhat tongue-in-check, that their coach was going to overwork them now that they got all the new equipment.

Given who the fitness center was named after, it was only natural that many officers, including several commanders, attended the opening. The 15th District Commander Ernest Cato praised Brown for her involvement with Michelle Clark students and the energy and dedication she brought to the job.

“Officer Carolyn Brown was definitely a very strong officer who provided a lot of hope for her school,” he said, adding that she did what all officers should try to do — get so involved in the community they serve that they become part of the community’s fabric.”

Brittany Johnson, Brown’s daughter, said that, while she was incredibly honored to have the room named after her mother, she felt that her mother would not have wanted all of the attention.

“Knowing my mom, she would have hated that it was about her and not [entirely] about the kids,” Johnson reflected. “She loved the kids and just to see their faces, their reactions, is incredible.”

Johnson recalled that her mother was more than just a resource officer, she also coached some sports was “really involved with Michelle Clark.”

Dr. Annette Gurley, who served as a principal at Michele Clark between 2001 and 2007, described Brown as tough, but fair. Students could come to Brown with their problems before they would escalate. At the same time, Brown didn’t hesitate to arrest students when she felt it was necessary.

But even then, Gurley said, Brown and her fellow resource officers tried to help the students. The former principal recalled how the resource officers took a girl that they arrested several times under their wings, buying her a prom dress and sending her care packages while she was away at college.

“[That girl] is now a practicing nurse, all because they saw that she wasn’t just a rough kid they kept arresting,” Gurley said. 

Referencing the popular creed that it takes a village to raise a child, the principal said that the village is stronger when officers like Brown are involved.

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com  

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...