On the bleak east side of Detroit, a boxing coach is making sure kids have a fighting chance at success in a city plagued by hardship.
At the Downtown Youth Boxing Gym, run by Coach Khali Sweeney, children get nutritious food, warm coats donated by local businesses, and lessons inside the ring. The only rule: The kids must finish their homework before they throw any punches at the gym.
"I can't sugarcoat it. The city is a rough place," Sweeney said. "I'm encouraging them to make healthy choices, healthy decisions, eat right, live right, respect yourself, and do overall good. I mean, you know, educate yourself."
His encouragement is paying off. Sweeney said he had some "Z-students" who are now getting As and Bs in school. The high school graduation rate among kids enrolled at the gym is 100 percent, compared to 65 percent citywide.
But that success came at a cost: When NBC Nightly News first reported on the Downtown Youth Boxing Gym in March 2013, the gym was in danger of having its lights shut off, and Sweeney was juggling several jobs to keep afloat. He even lived in the gym at one point because he had run out of money. Now, thanks to donations, the gym is getting ready to move into a new building. GM has donated vans to safely transport kids to and from the program. And there's enough money for desks and computers, and for Sweeney to pay himself a modest salary so he doesn't have to moonlight on the side. Teachers chip in by tutoring after school.
"Since the first interview and a couple other interviews, we pulled together some support in the community and the business community stepped up in a big way, in a major way," Sweeney said. "We've been able to keep the lights and gas bill paid on time."
Still, many of Detroit's kids are out on the streets and unable to get into the free boxing program: There are more than 420 kids on the waiting list.
"That's one of the things I don't like to talk about," Sweeney said. "It's 400 kids who want to be somewhere."
Sweeney hopes to expand to a bigger facility so he can steer more of Detroit's youth away from trouble. In addition to their schoolwork, Sweeney makes sure all of the kids participate in community service as a way of giving back to the neighborhood.
"With this culture that we have, a lot of these kids will end up in prison," he said. "A lot of these kids will end up in a graveyard. So you need some positive influences to steer them away from certain things."
Since we first aired our report about Detroit's Downtown Youth Boxing Gym in 2013, we’ve heard from many of you asking how you can help support Coach Khali Sweeney and his kids. If you’d like to follow up, you can click Donate with Amazon here.
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—Rehema Ellis, Mary Murray, Michelle Melnick and Elizabeth Chuck