This boxing gym is giving the underserved kids of Detroit a second chance at a future.
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The CW Black Lightning

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:

The CW: Black Lightning

He realized everyone he knew growing up was either dead or in jail. So he took action.For more stories about community heroes, tune in to the series premiere of "Black Lightning" on Jan. 16 at 9/8c only on The CW.

Posted by Upworthy on Tuesday, January 9, 2018
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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

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