What do you do when your community doesn’t have a real safe haven for kids? According to one Detroit man, you open a boxing gym.
That’s what Khali Sweeney decided to do after giving his son some boxing lessons.
“We didn’t have any places for kids to go,” he said. “And so what would happen is a lot of guys would just make up stuff to do or just find trouble to get into.”
Sweeney wanted to give kids a safe and healthy place to spend their time, so he opened Downtown Boxing Gym in 2007. The kids who attended were so focused and dedicated that he decided to find a way to turn that dedication toward school.
As Sweeney points out, most kids don’t want to attend after-school tutoring because their friends would make fun of them. Going to a boxing gym, however, sounds a lot cooler. So Sweeney brought the tutors to his center.
Students are taught a “books before boxing” mentality. Trainees do their homework in the gym and volunteers come to help them with their coursework and studying.
Coach Khali, as the trainees call him, decided he wanted to put his focus on education because he noticed that children were being pushed through school without learning the material. He wanted to combat that.
“Education is the vehicle that can take you anywhere you want to go in life,” he said.
Sweeney had a rough start in his own life. His mother was a drug addict and some neighbor friends informally adopted him. He realized in the third grade that he couldn’t read or write. Suddenly he was in the 11th grade and still couldn’t read or write. He dropped out of school and lived the street life, working side jobs when he could.
One day his brother pulled out a photo of Sweeney as a teen with several friends. All the friends were dead, in jail, or on the run. That’s when Sweeney decided to change his life.
He went back to school and began working in construction. He earned enough money to stay in hotels week by week. Sweeney thought about the kids in his community and how he didn’t want the same for them. He remembered that as a kid he had two cousins who were so good at boxing that they went professional for a time. Sweeney would often train with them. They ran five miles a day and shadow boxed.
So Sweeney started training a few teens in a park. Then he signed a lease for a gym.
Sweeney poured so much of himself into the gym that he couldn’t afford anything else. He started sleeping in his car. Then he had to sell his car and started sleeping in the gym. He asked for donations where he could, but Sweeney knew his gym was on the brink of closure.
That’s when Jessica Hauser came in. The Detroit resident joined Downtown Boxing Gym in 2010 for her own personal fitness and left with the desire to see the program flourish. She got the paperwork together to make the gym a nonprofit and eventually became executive director. Sweeney says without her, the gym wouldn’t have become the city’s most recognized youth enrichment program.
Hauser said although the program costs about $1,800 per student per year, it’s provided free to families. The gym only asks that parents do volunteer work with the center.
Sweeney said the biggest reward for him has been seeing his students graduate high school and start their careers. In fact, his trainees have a 100 percent graduation rate. Even more, they want to pay his services forward by returning to help their communities.
When students express their gratitude, Sweeney responds that they have helped him just as much. Before the gym, he said, he didn’t have a cause. “And a man without a cause is a man lost.”