A converted book bindery on the east side of Detroit is unusually active on this late Wednesday afternoon, as scores of cars parked up on the side street outside attest. Inside, under the sawtooth roof of the former industrial building, dozens of young people are gathered around two boxing rings, where fighters are being coached in the sweet science. In a regulation-size ring, two teenagers land blows that echo off the gymnasium-hard walls, while several younger siblings of the youths in the program run around, adding to the din. Over in the corner, a dozen young people are participating in a yoga class , and nearby a video crew is shooting it all for a show hosted by Katie Couric.
This is no ordinary boxing gym. This is the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program, the after-school activity where the rigors of boxing go hand in hand with training young minds.
The program didn’t always get this much attention. Five years ago, it was run on a shoestring out of a 4,000-square-foot gym on the near east side. Now it occupies this newly renovated 27,000-square foot structure, which includes the group’s offices, computer lab, and meeting areas. The group paid $280,000 to obtain the 1945 building on East Vernor Highway, and laid out another half-million dollars on the ambitious conversion, which included more than a fresh coat of paint. The nonprofit installed new wiring, LED lighting, a new fire suppression system, wireless service, and built ramps and blew out walls to meet zoning and legal requirements. The group’s annual budget is around $350,000. Of course, it’s still done on a shoestring – institutionally speaking. For now, the program is only able to accept 65 students, and needs to raise an additional $1,200 a year for every student they add.
The enterprise relies on a mix of non-profit, government, and corporate assistance, having received grants from Kresge Foundation and others, tutors from Teach for America, and a range of donations from businesses as large as General Motors and Quicken Loans and as small as Avalon International Breads and Supino Pizzeria. Sachse Construction did much of the work on the building “in kind,” and the Rossetti architectural planning firm did an estimated $300,000 worth of pro bono work on the redesign. Madonna’s Ray of Light foundation even kicked in.
The gym’s development director, Carolyn Geck, takes us on a tour of the group’s new home. We head back into the offices only to stumble in a businessman-turned-philanthropist meeting with board chairman and Rock Ventures guy Matt Roling. Roling tells us the last year has been exciting, and that “a lot of good stuff is happening.”
As we navigate the hallway, it’s obvious the organization is just settling in at its new digs. The coach’s office isn’t even set up yet. The doors have sticky notes on them to denote who works where. This group just moved in its new space a little more than two weeks ago — and it already has almost 500 aspiring young boxers on its waiting list.
A perfect match
The duo doing most of the heavy lifting at the gym consists of Jessica Hauser, 33, in charge of the mammoth fundraising task, and Carlos Sweeney, 45, better known as “Coach Khali,” the hands-on trainer running the program. The gym might not be here today if they hadn’t met several years ago.
Coach Khali had trained young boxers for years in a small building on the near east side, but was about to throw in the towel when he met Hauser. He says, “I was about to give up on the gym. I had no money left and was tired of borrowing money from people, tired of just scraping through. I didn’t think it was good for the kids or good for the program. I didn’t think it was fair to myself or to the parents.”
Luckily, that’s when Hauser dropped into the picture. A mutual friend of theirs, a boxer himself, had suggested Hauser visit the coach’s gym and do fitness training with him. She says she mustered the nerve to visit Coach Khali’s gym, which was then located on a desolate stretch of St. Aubin Street, amid vacant buildings and urban meadows.
“To be honest, I was petrified,” she says. “I grew up in the suburbs. It was quite intimidating to me.”
But when she saw Coach Khali working with young people, Hauser, who was then a grad student studying the politics of international children’s rights, was floored.
She says, “I walked in thinking it was going to be just a boxing gym, and I walked in on 60-plus kids all just packed in that building. … I didn’t know it was an after-school program, but there was just something I saw in those kids instantly. I just started asking Khali a million questions.”
She recalls, “The long and short of it is, he said, ‘I’m glad you’re interested in this place, but I just got done telling the parents I have to close.’ And I thought, ‘These kids can’t be on the street. Something special is going on here.’”
Hauser joined forces with Khali and got down to work, getting the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program established as a non-profit just four years ago. She’s also been instrumental in gaining media coverage for the program, which has been featured NBC Nightly News twice in the last two years. That’s the sort of exposure that helps gain the attention of high-profile donors, which Hauser has helped rack up. But she’s humble about her prowess. Tell her she’s a fundraising and PR powerhouse and she says, “That might be overkill” — when she stops laughing. “I’m just passionate. Khali really has created something that people want to get behind because he does what he says he’s doing. And that’s rare.”
‘Books before boxing’
While Coach Khali’s gym does have a competition team of 12 to 16 kids that head into amateur fights, and has produced nationally ranking Levan Johnson and pro fighter Anthony Flagg Jr., the goal isn’t to prepare its participants for the ring but for life. And yet the training the kids get is real. Hauser says, “We take the sport seriously, or kids won’t be attracted to this facility.”
Coach Khali says, “I tell them nobody in this room will become a professional boxer. And if you did, you’d hardly make any money at it. But if you have an education, the sky is the limit, and you can do whatever you want. We push the education. The boxing, yeah, it’s cool and it’s a sport. We get it. Any yahoo can throw punches, but I’m saying to educate your mind and be good and disciplined in that. ”
The kids are drawn to the program for a variety of reasons, boxing being just one. Coach Khali says, “They come in with life issues. Life problems: Where is the next meal coming from? They might not have lights or gas. Some of these kids might be in a great home environment, a great neighborhood, a great school but they may have other problems. They may have bullies. They may have confidence issues. For the vast majority of the kids, they might just need to catch up on their tutoring. We don’t turn our back on any of them. We are there for them and support them in any way that we can. The kids that need a meal, we make sure food is available to them.”
The group’s benefactors are often happy to help take care of those needs. Forgotten Harvest provides healthy meals every day, and Door-to-Door Organics supplies fruit for the kids to eat.
Hauser says, “We’re really working hard to support these kids. We know every kid and we know every kid’s story, and so we can tailor what we do to meet their needs. If we know a kid doesn’t have a school uniform, we make sure we get him a school uniform. Or books. We found ways to get them free driver’s training in exchange for community service.”
Despite all the program has to offer, some of the youths just want to learn how to land a punch — and get more than they bargained for. Geck says, “Sometimes they come in and they just really don’t want anyone to beat them up anymore. Kids who are bullied build a little bit of self-esteem here. They learn to carry themselves in a different way. They find community and kinship with these people here, and it changes their perspective about their world.”
The sport’s toughness also works another wonder for these kids: It provides an after-school program that is socially acceptable to even their toughest peers. Khali says, “It’s easier to say to your friends that you are going to the boxing gym than to say you’re going to an after-school program. To go to an after-school program, you will hear a thousand negatives why you shouldn’t go. But for a boxing program, they might come along with you. Seeing a boxing program is really cool and, before you know it, you’ll have half of your neighborhood over here trying to learn to box.”
He adds, “At the same time you will have to follow my rules to get books before boxing.”
While boxing is a potent metaphor for the struggles these kids face, the program really is about toughening their minds, specifically to achieve graduation and go on to college. A typical session at the gym might involve tutoring or mentoring, or even the odd yoga class. Hauser describes how the gym’s 15 girls came out of a mentoring process with their own lip gloss line, down to the business plan and marketing strategy, and are selling their product to fatten their college fund.
Lip gloss and yoga at a boxing gym? Hauser laughs about it, but adds, “Anything and everything we can do. We try not to be too rigid, because then I think you lose that magic touch with the kids.”
The Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program's official ribbon cutting takes place at 9 a.m. Aug. 19, at 6445 E. Vernor Hwy., Detroit.