Downtown Boxing Gym has always been more than a boxing gym and as the years go on, the organization reaches more Detroit youth. “Books Before Boxing” is their motto, and they combine enrichment, education, community service, mentoring, intervention, physical activity and a whole lot more to make their youth program successful.
Khali Sweeney, the founder and program director at Downtown Boxing Gym (DBG), started dreaming up the idea for the gym well before it became what it is today. He started DBG in 2007 after a desire to create a safe space for kids to get help in both school and life.
Sweeney himself had a hard time growing up. He grew up on the Eastside of Detroit and couldn’t read or write well as a kid. He would do anything to deflect attention away from him and his reading during school, oftentimes by bullying a kid or doing something funny to distract the class, so that he wouldn’t have to read aloud.
He dropped out in junior year of high school and was continuously told he would end up dead or in jail. Sweeney went on to jobs in construction and security to save up money for what he wanted to do in life- open a space for kids to grow to their full potential.
“If you put it in a kid’s head that they’ll never make it, they’ll start to believe it,” said Jessica Hauser, executive director of DBG.
And Sweeney didn’t want kids to feel like he did when he was younger. He saved up his money, sold his possessions and bought a gym where he would train people–sometimes teachers–in boxing during the morning and then he would work with their students after school.
Boxing is the hook.
“If you tell someone you’re going to a boxing gym after school, nobody is going to say anything bad or make fun of you,” Hauser said.
Hauser met Sweeney during a training session after a referral from a friend. The friend told her that she should work with Sweeney because of how great his athletic training was. Oddly enough, the friend didn’t mention anything about DBG.
After normal conversation at their training sessions, Hauser got to know about Sweeney and his mission. She asked if she could get involved and make it an official nonprofit. She didn’t have experience in building a nonprofit at the time, but she wanted to learn how to make this as big and impactful as it could be.
“It was obvious the relationships that were forming at this place,” Hauser said.
Since selling all of his possessions, Sweeney was living at the gym at the time, and that was DBG’s first location on Saint Aubin Street.
Now, they’ve got a bigger gym on East Vernor Highway and about 150 kids (7-18) in the youth program with about 700 on the waiting list.
When something works, people spread the word, Hauser said.
“We have an opportunity to really make an impact,” Hauser said.
Each student is tested each year so that DBG can create an individualized plan for each of them.
“Some kids will come back to study for a couple of hours and some only need 30 minutes, it really depends,” Hauser said.
Sweeney makes sure that each student gets involved in the physical fitness piece of DBG in one way or another, even if they don’t want to box competitively in the ring.
One of the biggest parts of DBG is the mentoring, Hauser said.
“If they don’t have the mentoring, this doesn’t work,” she said. “At the end of the day, life is all about relationships.”
Some of the students are with DBG for years and quite a few follow through with the program until they graduate from high school. The numbers do the talking about success.
To date, 100 percent of the kids through the program have graduated high school and 98 percent have gone on to college.
And it’s not just books and boxing at DBG, either. Each student gets involved with the gym’s planned community service projects at places like Forgotten Harvest and Gleaners Food Bank.
“The kids like it so much they ask to do it,” Hauser said.
Sweeney considers what will help make a student a well-rounded person when he develops programs at the gym, Hauser said.
“The expectation is on the kid to pick up the baton and choose their destiny,” Hauser said.
The students can take cooking classes, in the kitchen that was donated to DBG recently by Rachael Ray, coding classes, music classes, art classes and more on top of their normal study time. Camps in engineering, horseback riding and more are also planned for the students at DBG.
“You never know what that lightbulb moment could be for a kid,” Hauser said.
Since gaining traction in the community and across the world, universities and organizations have partnered with DBG to bring free physicals, free mouth guards, free dental and vision care and more.
It costs about $1,800 per year to sponsor a student. Individuals and businesses can donate to sponsor a student’s involvement in the program.
The goal is to have 250 students in the program by the end of 2017 and to do that; DBG has to hire more teachers.
“You hear a lot that the kids say that this feels like a family to them,” Hauser said.
Visit www.downtownyouthboxing.org to learn more about the youth program and how to get involved. On the site, you’re also able to make donations and purchase merchandise.