6445 East Vernor Highway. I won’t forget that address anytime soon.
Or the first time I walked inside the building. Tools and debris were everywhere, chemical stains on the floor, possible asbestos – not unlike much of the commercial building stock in many Detroit neighborhoods.
But the price was right, and as the recently elected board chair of the Downtown Boxing Gym, I needed to help the youth program find a new home. The book binding business that had occupied 6445 E. Vernor had recently closed and was liquidated. It was hard for me to visualize how that building might be transformed into something special and I was afraid we might run out of money chasing that vision. The boxing gym, open since 2005, was founded by Carlo Sweeney (better known as Coach Khali) – a man who, like so many others in Detroit, saw a need in his community, and did what he could to address it. So many children in our city walk out of school when the bell rings only to be confronted with the horrors offered by the streets of Detroit. Khali’s boxing gym provides kids with a safe alternative. After you hit the books, then you can hit the bags. Here kids can come to train, study and dream bigger dreams about what they might become as adults.
With no outside funding, Khali, for a time, ran the gym with his personal savings. When those funds were exhausted, he sold anything and everything he had to keep the doors open. For a long period, the gym was where he slept. Never wanting families to choose between paying their bills and sending their child to the gym, Khali did not ask parents for support.
In 2010, Jessica Hauser, a cellist and PhD student, visited the gym for a boxing lesson. Instead, the visit ended up becoming a pivotal moment in her life. She saw how boxing spoke to the children. She saw how attentive and well behaved they were, and how well they responded to Khali – and she felt the same call to service that he had. Jessica dropped everything and became the executive director of the gym. And in doing so, she sold many of her own possessions – including her cello – to keep the gym afloat. The focus became building community support for the program. The gym became a 501(c)(3) and its story began to spread.
Through an article written by Sharon Luckerman in the Detroit Jewish News, word of the gym made its way to my employer, Rock Ventures. Khali and Jessica came looking for help finding a permanent location for the gym, since up to that point Khali had been using an old carwash near Eastern Market as a makeshift locale. Aside from the building’s condemnable condition, the program was outgrowing it, and the landlord was difficult. Could we help them? Someone asked me to look into it because of my background in finance and real estate.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was my turn to visit the gym and fall in love with the mission and the two saints toiling away to do their part to impact the lives of Detroit youth. And it is hard not to fall in love with people who are so dedicated to the “why” of what they do.
As the product of a modest, yet fairly well-adjusted upbringing in rural Wisconsin, it took me a while to truly understand the gym’s transformative powers.
After school program. Check.
Safe harbor. Got it.
…Or so I thought.
The gym has taught me our environment has more control over our lives then we oftentimes dare to imagine. It is an easy salve for cognitive dissonance to blame the least of our brothers and sisters for their own failure, and challenge them to pick themselves up by the bootstraps. Witnessing first-hand the odds these children face, I can report that there but for the grace of god go we. Poverty is cyclical and deeply psychological. Had I not already seen a remedy with my own eyes I might also say it is insurmountable.
That remedy is patience, good nutrition, healthy bodies, academic support, accountability, encouragement and love. It is not a silver bullet. Rather, it is many copper ones.
The state of Michigan spends about $2 billion each year annually on our department of corrections, or about $45,000 annually per inmate. That is about $200 per year for every man, woman and child in our state spent on prisons.
Only about 60 percent of Detroit’s children graduate high school. About one in four African-American male dropouts is incarcerated. Wouldn’t it be so much better for all involved if we invested in children and helped them realize their full potential? What if we helped them become tax payers themselves instead of spending the annual equivalent of the GDP of Belize on incarceration?
In the 10 years the gym has been open, Khali and Jessica have watched nearly 300 children pass through their doors. No fewer than 100 percent of them have graduated high school and over 95 percent of them have gone on to attend college. None of them are in a penitentiary.
After a few months of volunteering at the gym, Jessica and Khali asked me to lead the governance board. Having never chaired a board before, I hesitated. “We trust you to do a good job,” they said. And so there we were: a social entrepreneur by accident, an executive director by accident and a board chair by accident.
Over the course of the last three years, our board and our staff have continued to build on the groundwork laid by Khali and Jessica. Our annual budget has grown many times over. We have grown our staff from two underpaid volunteers to five full-time, gainfully employed team members; and most importantly, we have grown the program’s enrollment from about 40 children to over 140.
And yes, with help from many friends, we did purchase and renovate 6445 E. Vernor Hwy. It is fitting that the book binding building has found a second life as a place where people learn.
With a waiting list of more than 600 children, there are still many students waiting for their teacher to appear. And so, we will continue to serve.
Sometime not long after we started this project, I came across a Victor Hugo quote that has stuck with me: “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”
Not only is 6445 Vernon now as full of life and laughter as it once was cold and empty, but I find myself changed, too. Before taking on this project I had never met anyone like Khali and Jessica; people who are driven to do good for a reason much larger than themselves. The boxing gym has taught me that philanthropy, whether monetary or otherwise, is full of opportunities to meet inspirational individuals and effect real change. Now, I couldn’t imagine my life without that promise.