Meet children’s advocate, UI alumnus Kam Buckner

As executive director of World Sport Chicago, Kam Buckner helps bring athletics programming to children in underrepresented Chicago neighborhoods. (Photo by Scott Thompson)
Former Illini gridiron star Kam Buckner leverages sports to spur positive change in Chicago.

Amid the noise and energized movement inside Chicago’s Washington Park Fieldhouse, Kambium “Kam” Buckner, ’07 LAS, stops to savor a warm, cathartic moment.

Just weeks into his role as the new executive director of World Sport Chicago in early 2015, Buckner is attending one of his organization’s Becoming a Man—Sports Edition events. It’s a male character-development curriculum for inner-city students that blends sports programming with mentorship. As a group of about 40 teenage boys scurries through physical exercises testing their flexibility, balance and stamina, he realizes something powerful.

“These kids were just like me, and they, too, needed an opportunity to grow and learn just as I did,” recalls Buckner, a native of Chicago’s South Side, as are the students in his program.

Propelled by his parents (one a Chicago Public Schools teacher, the other a Chicago police officer), teachers and coaches who were invested in his development, Buckner matriculated to the University of Illinois, where he was a political science major and standout defensive lineman for the Illini. Later, he earned a law degree from DePaul University and enjoyed professional stints with the office of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, the City of New Orleans, the Chicago Cubs and, most recently, World Sport Chicago—a spirited organization born from Chicago’s unsuccessful bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games.

“It would have been easy for the people who led that bid to pack up and go home [after the 2016 Olympics vote],” Buckner says, “but they were so intent on doing something positive for our city.”

World Sport Chicago is the result of that failed bid’s lingering money, resources, momentum and passion, an enterprise committed to investing in Chicago’s communities.

With its “Dreams Play Here” motto, the now nine-year-old nonprofit brings athletics programming to children in underrepresented neighborhoods throughout Chicago—teaching and instilling valuable life lessons such as perseverance, teamwork and equanimity amidst the physical activity.

One of World Sport Chicago’s partners is PlayStreets Chicago—a citywide initiative in which residential streets are temporarily closed and converted into pop-up play spaces. (Photo by Scott Thompson)

One of World Sport Chicago’s partners is PlayStreets Chicago—a citywide initiative in which residential streets are temporarily closed and converted into pop-up play spaces.

As World Sport Chicago’s executive director, Buckner serves as the organization’s public face—advancing its visibility and elevating its brand while simultaneously managing its budget and driving its fundraising efforts. On April 9, for instance, he provided an energetic, encouraging voice at World Sport Chicago’s “Spin to Break the Cycle” event—an eight-hour, indoor spin affair at Chicago’s famed House of Blues that attracted more than 1,000 people and raised $200,000 for World Sport Chicago programming.

“I know firsthand how transformative sports can be, the lessons they can provide and the valuable life skills they can teach, which is why I’ll do whatever it takes to provide these kids with some of the same opportunities I had,” Buckner says.

Most days, he floats around the city, frequently heading south from his South Loop home before working his way back north as the sun sweeps across the Chicago sky. At some point, he might stop in his West Loop office. More often, his office sits above four wheels, either his own car or the backseat of an Uber driver’s car.

“I just don’t spend a lot of time behind a desk,” Buckner says.

Instead, he’s usually in meetings with community groups and school principals, local elected officials and city officials—anyone and everyone who can help him advance the World Sport Chicago mission.

“But my favorite part,” Buckner confesses, “is being around the kids we serve and seeing the programs we envisioned come to fruition.”

Kam Buckner

(Photo by Scott Thomson)

In addition to BAM—Sports Edition, World Sport Chicago runs a summer track program as well as an after-school soccer program for elementary school students called P.L.A.Y.S., created in partnership with, among others, the  Chicago Fire Foundation and PlayStreets Chicago—a citywide initiative in which residential streets are temporarily closed and converted into pop-up play spaces.

World Sport Chicago also created and grew Valor Games Midwest, an adaptive sports competition for U.S. military veterans and service members who have physical and visual disabilities. This year, however, the three-day gathering—which includes competitions in events such as shot put, archery, cycling and indoor rowing—will be handed off to the Chicago Park District.

“The Park District has the people and tools to grow it in the proper fashion, but I know we’re proud to have brought Valor Games Midwest to life,” Buckner says.

Sports are ingrained in Chicago’s civic DNA, and Buckner relishes the opportunity to use them as an agent for change in neighborhoods across the city. Sports, he says, provide young people with a controlled environment that, like life, can get uncontrolled and chaotic. A positive outcome only comes from focus, teamwork and digging deep inside oneself to find strength.

“Winning on the field or on the court is not dissimilar to winning in life,” Buckner says.