STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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How one man built a safe haven for kids in Detroit, where books meet boxing

Paulette Parker / Michigan Radio

On an industrial block on Detroit's east side, there's a big, black building that sits along a stretch of warehouses. The front of the building is covered in glass windows. A banner sprawled across screams: "Welcome to Downtown Boxing Gym!"

The building is home to the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program. The afterschool program was started by Khali Sweeney in 2007.

Here, kids have access to tutors and mentors. They can also take classes in things like cooking, mock trial, or job skills. They eat dinner. And Sweeney, who is an athlete, teaches them how to box. It's all year-round, and entirely free.

Sweeney grew up in Detroit. He says as a kid, he didn't have access to things like parks and recreation centers in his neighborhood. As an adult, he saw kids going through the same thing, so he took action.

"If you see a cycle that's repeating itself over, and over, and over like a bad dream, you have to make steps to change it," Sweeney said. "Why wait for somebody to jump out the sky and save me, or wait for some guy to decide that one day he wants to do it?"

Sweeney started out doing boxing training with kids in the neighborhood where he lived. He says in spending time with them, he learned many of them were falling behind in school.

Credit Paulette Parker / Michigan Radio

"So I started enlisting people, like if you want to participate in these workout sessions I was doing, you'd have to help me tutor a kid. So people would gladly do it," he said.

The program used to be in a 4,000 square foot, re-purposed car wash. Last year they moved into their current building, with almost 28,000 square feet.

Two full-size boxing rings dominate the center of the floor. A row of black boxing bags hangs from the ceiling. There's a computer room, classroom, music room, and a little corner library. Everything is paid for with donations and corporate sponsorships.

There are more than 100 kids in the program, and more than 600 currently on a waiting list. And there are parents that help, too. Some are cooks, some drive the fleet of busses they use to get kids to and from the gym. Sweeney says while a lot of athletic programs don't allow parents to participate, he encourages it.

"Anytime you can spend more time with your father or mother, it's always going to be beneficial to the kid," Sweeney said. "I figure to myself, what better way than through play to get your kids together to build a bond."

Asiya El is president of the parent club and the girl's boxing coach. They call her "Coach Tamika." She signed her 16-year-old son Dorian up for the program three years ago, and has been helping Sweeney at the gym ever since.

"As soon as I saw that he needed certain things done, I was doing them. So I said, okay, well I'll just be a coach, too," she says.

Credit Paulette Parker / Michigan Radio

Even though boxing training is part of the program, Sweeney stresses that academics come first. "Books before boxing" is his motto. And to get time in the ring, kids have to spend time with tutors each day, and keep their grades up.

And according to Sweeney, his philosophy is paying off. He says in the neighborhood where the gym used to be, only 30% of kids graduated high school. But that's not the case at the gym.

"The kids that come to our program, that are of age, that are in high school, they graduate on time -- with good grade point averages. You know, because you can't do nothing but learn here. There's no option," Sweeney said.

Sweeney says this June, all of the seniors in his program graduated high school. And he welcomed the next set of kids in line.

Paulette is a blogger for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously interned as a reporter in the Michigan Radio newsroom.
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