Before he became a boxing coach, Khali Sweeney walked down a troublesome path.
He never learned to read and dropped out of high school when he was in 11th grade. Before he was even 18, he had cards stacked against him. As a result, he turned to a life of crime.
Then one day, a few years later, he made a harrowing realization — most of the kids he knew growing up in Detroit were either in jail or dead.
That was the moment Sweeney decided to take his life in a different direction. He taught himself to read and eventually found a job in construction.
As he got older, he felt compelled to help kids like him have a fighting chance at a better life. So, since he had a passion for boxing, he started coaching neighborhood kids in a local park.
“There’s no recreational facilities around here," says Sweeney. "There’s nothing for kids in this neighborhood to do.”
Coach Khali teaching a student at his gym. All photos via CW Black Lightning.
In 2007, he founded the Downtown Boxing Gym youth program in Detroit — a nonprofit that empowers underserved youth through education, athletics, and mentorship.
Before Downtown Boxing Gym was established, only 14% of the kids in the neighborhood were graduating from high school.
But with the gym's inception, all that changed. Thanks to their state-of-the-art facility, dedicated staff of academic professionals, and well-rounded program, 100% of the kids who've joined the Downtown Boxing Gym program have graduated from high school.
That's because one of the gym's main goals is to offer disadvantaged kids in the neighborhood an opportunity to succeed.
Students in the gym's youth program.
"The students in our program are going to school every day in a school system that’s completely broken," explains Jessica Hauser, executive director of the gym.
For example, according to a recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 4% of Detroit's 8th-grade students can read and perform at their grade level, which is the lowest percentage among big cities in America. But shrinking illiteracy in Detroit is just one of the program's goals.
"We do everything possible to try and counter all the negative things that they’re facing in the school systems," she says. And that starts with the gym's motto: books before boxing.
"If you don’t do your homework before you box, you can’t train that day," says Chrystal Berry, one of the gym's students.
Thanks to tutoring that's tailored to each student's academic needs, kids on average see an improvement of at least one letter grade. That coupled with the daily discipline of boxing helps the kids feel more confident. It's a strong, foundational support system that reminds them they're not alone.
A student in the cooking program at the gym.
The gym has already helped change so many kids' lives. It's amazing what a safe space, a few teachers, and a boxing ring can do.
The setup is helping break the destructive pattern that's often fostered by a poor education system. It's a lifeline for kids who may not have any other healthy outlets in their communities.
For some, like 19-year-old Janelson Figueroa Bocachica, the program can lead to a successful career in boxing. The welterweight just signed a promotional deal with former heavyweight world champion Evander Holyfield. For others, though, boxing is simply a gateway into a world of opportunity they never thought they'd reach.
No matter their passion, as long as they have a desire to do better and reach higher, all kids have a place at the Downtown Boxing Gym.
Learn more about the gym here: