Recently, NBC ran a story about Carlo “Coach Khali” Sweeney, a boxing coach in Detroit who has changed the lives of many at-risk youth in that city. He teaches them how to box. But he also teaches them how to live, training them in how to be human beings as well as good fighters. He runs his gym in a tough neighborhood, on Detroit’s east side, and he offers his students an alternative to the usual institutions where you learn life’s lessons. Like a gang leader, he also creates an alternate family where his charges acquire not only skills but a code of conduct. For seven years the Downtown Boxing Gym has been a lifeline for a group of kids on Detroit’s east side. As NBC reported, when Sweeney grew up in this same neighborhood, it was a completely different era, for both this Rust Belt city and America as a whole: it was “vibrant, and alive.” The place had problems, but it also had a thriving economy where people could hitch a life-time ride with in manufacturing and make an above-average income as a blue-collar worker. All that is gone now.
Today, Detroit is a shadow of its former self. The report showed neighborhoods that look like a war zone. City buses don’t even bother to have routes through the blocks where Sweeney runs his school. Street lights have been shut off. While recent job reports show nascent signs of a rebound in hiring, Detroit isn’t feeling it. It’s unemployment rate is around 30 percent. It has yet to find a way to replace the wellspring of productivity that Motown once enjoyed from the manufacture of vehicles.
“A kid gets up in the morning, goes to school and he comes back to nothing,” Sweeney said. “At the same time, he sees all this stuff on TV and dreams of getting it, but there’s nobody around to show him the way to become a success. Kids are led astray when left on their own . . . somebody needs to be their gatekeeper. Somebody needs to step up and take responsibility.”
Sweeney opened the gym seven years ago. “Families are just one paycheck away from being homeless,” he said. “It killed me to see parents choosing between paying for food or boxing lessons.” So he lets his kids train for free. Only those with genuine character stick with it. If they veer from the program, it’s boot camp: down on the floor for twenty push-ups.
“Boxing is hard work. Just tell me if you’re up to the challenge. If you are, I’m here. But, if you’re not, leave now. I don’t like wasting my time.”
He can point to one transformed life after another.
Christal Berry joined the gym last year and said it “changed” her life. “Boxing is all I can think about,” she said. Only 13 years old, she weighed in at 200 when she began. Aerobics, rope jumping, and shadow boxing have burned off 50 pounds. She’s full of self-confidence and discipline now. As with all the others, she does her schoolwork before she puts on the gloves.
Darien Richardson was ready to give up on herself, ready to drop out of school, when she met Sweeney. “The coach convinced me to finish high school and go on to college,” he said. “He’s that guy, that man you can talk to when anything’s happening in your life.”
Kadeem Anderson was already a fighter, but his were usually in a street or behind a building. Boxing gave him a way to vent, without hurting anyone. Now he walks away from taunts and trash talk.
No one in the organization takes a paycheck for their work. It’s all entirely voluntary.
Sweeney has other jobs on the side to make ends meet, as a contractor or a security guard. Some know how good he is, and they donate to the group. Russ Russell manages “Forgotten Harvest,” an organization fighting hunger in Detroit for the past 20 years. Every week, he sends a truck of food to the gym. Meijer, a Michigan-headquartered superstore chain, donated winter coats for all the boxers. A retired attorney, Ed Forton, paid the bills for months, and so did other local businesses, including Avalon Bakery and Supino Pizza As a way of giving back, Sweeney has his boxers participate in monthly community service projects “If you treat these kids like victims, they get this mentality of being helpless,” said Sweeney. “I’m obsessed with giving every kid in Detroit a fighting chance.”