Detroit Father Turns Boxing Interest Into Youth Enrichment Program

This example of civil society says 'books before boxing'

Khali Sweeney

In making the case for limited government, free-market proponents often mention the concept of the civil society, an idea from ancient Greece that the ideal state is one in which people dedicate themselves to the common good.

There are many examples of people coming together with no push or help from the government to address a public problem. Sometimes a solution just evolves, as it did for Khali Sweeney of Detroit when he started teaching his teenage son how to box.

“We didn’t have any recreation centers in my immediate area. We didn’t have places for kids to go. And so what would happen is a lot of guys would just make up stuff to do or just find trouble to get into,” said Sweeney. He wanted to break that cycle by offering a healthy place to neighborhood youth.

The boxing lessons ended up having more than their intended effect. Not only were kids staying out of trouble, they showed focus and dedication. Coach Khali, as he is known, built on that to turn kids on to school.

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Kids were being pushed through school, he said, even though they couldn’t read or write. It was a problem in his childhood, he said, and it’s still a problem today, so academics became the main focus of his efforts. “Education is the vehicle that can take you anywhere you want to go in life,” he said.

The motto at the gym became “books before boxing.” Sweeney’s trainees would use the gym to do their homework and volunteers started showing up to tutor them.

For his part, Sweeney gave everything he had to make the youth program a success. “I spent so much that I had nothing else left,” he said. I was sleeping in the gym; I was sleeping in my car.” He could have focused on his own needs. “But at same time, I have to practice what I preach, not, you know, being in someone’s life today and gone tomorrow,” he added.

With the help and personal sacrifice of Jessica Hauser, the program’s executive director, the Downtown Boxing Gym has become Detroit’s most recognized youth enrichment program. Celebrities from Rachel Ray to Eminem and Madonna have paid visits and contributed. The gym has a waiting list of 600 Detroit schoolchildren.

The gym moved to a larger facility and brought in paid tutors. It now offers a variety of educational programs to 125 students, ages 7 to 18, at least five hours a day, nearly every day of the year. Local companies help by offering free training in things like computer programming and career guidance.

“Our program is free for our families; the program is not free to run. It costs $1,800 per student per year for us,” said Hauser. All she asks of families in the program is that they do community service work with the gym.

Sweeney and Hauser hope to expand their offerings to 250 students by the end of 2017, with a later goal of 500. To Sweeney, the biggest reward is seeing students graduate from high school, set career paths and want to return to their communities to help others.

Students who participate in the program sometimes come to Sweeney to express gratitude for the help they received. He tells them, “Just as much as you feel I helped you, you helped me because I didn’t have a cause. And a man without a cause is a man lost.” He added that he suspects that others who volunteer receive benefits of their own.

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