Hitting the books: The boxing gym saving Detroit's youth

One of the many kids in Downtown Boxing Gym gets ready to go through drills in the open gym space. The gym uses boxing as a way to reach children in inner-city Detroit and the provide them with education and hot meals. Rachel Woolf for ESPN

DETROIT -- The buildings sit, one after another, on E Vernor Highway -- dilapidated houses, abandoned businesses, boarded-up structures, vacant lots populated by more weeds than cars driving down the multilane street.

It's a row of blight on the east side of Detroit, a city searching for recovery for decades. In the middle of this depression is a light, one easily missed along the road in this once-powerful city. On quick glance, it looks like every other building from the outside. Then you ultimately stop in the vacant field that doubles as a parking lot and see the sign: "Welcome to Downtown BOXING GYM."

Hope for the future of Detroit begins here in this dark-gray nondescript 27,500 square-foot edifice with a leaky ceiling. Walk in, go up a small ramp and find two boxing rings in the front. There's a row of heavy bags, some spare workout equipment and speed bags in the corner. As required in any boxing gym, there are, of course, plenty of mirrors for shadowboxing.

A boxing gym, on its own, is not going to save Detroit. It isn't going to be the reason this generation of Detroit kids has chances the last one didn't. Those reasons are in the back, behind the workout area that has trained champion amateur boxers, including 11-0 professional welterweight Janelson Figueroa Bocachica.

That the gym -- and the lofty goals it has -- is in a former book-binding facility is a small bit of irony because of what its founder has been working for the past decade-plus to accomplish. Boxing is how 49-year-old Carlo "Khali" Sweeney, the gym's founder, brings the children in to the free after-school program. It's education and the possibility of a better future that keeps them there.

Sweeney, a charismatic high-school dropout who said he didn't learn to read or write until his mid-to-late 20s and is just now contemplating returning to get his GED, is the de facto mayor of this building. He has had a hand in every hire and every decision. This was his vision; the reason why he took no salary for years, lived out of the gym's original location and drove an oft-broken-down Buick in the early days. When the Buick stalled out on a freeway in the snow, Sweeney got out and walked the rest of the way to the gym. All to be there for the kids.

Sweeney doesn't push the boxing portion of it -- knowing pro boxing can be fickle. The gym's best in-ring success is Bocachica, who has won his past four fights by knockout. According to BoxRec, he's one of only two welterweights in the top 200 under 20 years old along with Ricardo Salas. Bocachica is a fixture at the gym, working with younger fighters and serving as a general role model in and out of the ring.

"I'm on my way there. I made it super far right now and where I am, I'm in a great spot," Bocachica said. "I'm just getting better but in here, anybody can do what I've been doing. Everybody has a mind. Everybody has hands and feet. You got to get the right person to teach you the right way."

For Bocachica, those people are his father and Sweeney.

"He's taken care of me," Bocachica said. "It's like having a second father. Like a grandpa, like a little old man behind you saying, 'Are you doing good in school? Are you doing this? Are you doing that?' He brings you to the gym and works you harder over here. He's both sides. It's always been like that, since I first came to the gym."

Bocachica was one of the first kids to enter this program, back when it wasn't a program at all, but simply a man trying to save the kids of Detroit, one at a time in 2007 in an abandoned car wash on St. Aubin. It has grown from a handful to 172 children ages 8 to 18 (although alumni like Bocachica come back, too). While there's room for 250 kids, they don't yet have funding or staffing to grow the program and keep the vital one-on-one interaction intact. The ones accepted are chosen at random from an application pool. Sweeney wants to create an environment as close to the real world as possible, with multiple languages and cultures represented -- mirroring the world's diversity. And there's plenty of interest: a waiting list 850 students long for a program that has graduated 100 percent of its seniors since 2007.

Sweeney understands these kids as he was once one of them. Born on the east side of Detroit, poor enough to have to survive on sugar and syrup sandwiches, he said he lived from home to home with various family members through childhood and early adulthood. A former gang member, Sweeney said multiple friends from childhood are incarcerated or interred. So when a child has a problem, a parent has an issue, he understands.

"Growing up, everybody used to always say, you know, you so bad, man, you gonna be dead. You gonna get killed. You're gonna be in prison. That's what everybody would say to me," Sweeney said. "You fight all the time. They didn't understand that my fighting was just an excuse to get out of the classroom."

Sweeney's excuse eventually turned into a vision of how to help the next generation of Detroit kids remain focused on their education. Boxing is the enticement to get kids into the gym, but the real goal is in the white-painted rooms behind the rings. It's there where the motto he stresses -- "Books Before Boxing" -- is pulled off. That's the true mission of the Downtown Boxing Gym: a mantra consistently preached by the students. It's inscribed on a faux championship belt given to him by Rachael Ray that sits on a shelf in his corner office -- an office that doubles as a one-on-one literacy intervention lab in the afternoons.

Boxing brings the kids in. Education, life lessons and a group of adults preaching positivity and seeing potential in kids surrounded by negativity is why they stay.

"That's our future," said Valeena Bell, a parent with two kids in the program. "If they aren't taught the right way, what the heck is going to happen? What is going to happen? They are planning a future for them."

Detroit's school district is a constant in instability, rated at or near the bottom of every major city in the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam. Schools consolidate. Teachers are overworked. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told Crain's Detroit in March the district's curriculum is "an injustice to the children of Detroit." Based on numbers on the state's website, just 78.22 percent of its students graduated in four years for the 2016-17 school year. One in every 10 kids in that public school district senior class dropped out entirely before graduation. It makes what the Downtown Boxing Gym has done more remarkable.

Since 2007, all 276 seniors in the program have graduated from high school. From 5 to 7 percent of students, for myriad reasons, dropped the program before senior year.

When students are accepted, they go through a four-week orientation program including intensive time with Sweeney and parent meetings. Academic coordinators Mike Mroz and Kristin Lusk make sure they are the right fit for the student to succeed. They assess the child socially, athletically and academically. Often, they see literacy intervention is needed.

The kids come here lacking basic reading skills. They learn on a color-coded sliding magnetic whiteboard created to help see words easier. Vowels are green tiles, consonants white and various other combination-letter sounds in yellow, green, red and white.

"Intervention is a real thing, especially in the city of Detroit, it's needed because of some of the things the school systems are lacking or not able to provide at the moment," Lusk said. "But it can't just be like, 'Hey, you come in and you get tutoring and your problems are solved and you're on your way to a better life.'

"Yes, academics by far is something that contributes to end cycles of poverty and things like that. We have to teach life skills. Some kids don't even know how to study."

To combat that, Lusk and Mroz monitor every child's learning program on an individualized sheet for each student. Mroz has students from third to seventh grade and Lusk has students from eighth to 12th grade. Creating the program starts during orientation, asking if the student has an individualized educational plan, learning disabilities or behavioral issues. Then they assess the student's incoming reading level -- sometimes two or three grade levels below where they should be -- and other factors impeding their educational progress.

It's how they build trust. The academic coordinators and Sweeney work with a plethora of full-time, part-time and volunteer tutors from metro Detroit along with local universities to offer reading, math and science assistance. They devise a plan and partner -- or at least offer to -- with the child's in-school teachers to ensure the best overall education.

Despite the rigor, Mroz and Lusk give the kids autonomy of their own schedule at the gym to help teach responsibility and assess their life skills.

One day, they could be lined up with eight other fighters in front of a mirror next to the lockers, where trainer Monte King -- who has been with Sweeney since almost the beginning -- will put them through steps of jabs, hooks and uppercuts. He'll watch their form. Correct them. And then they'll be in a line, shadowboxing again. The next, they could spend an hour working on math homework and then climb into the ring, where a group of kids will stand on the apron to watch two fighters spar. A third day could be with individual training with one of the trainers, Tamika, inside and outside the ring.

They can do all this while having access to a computer lab to learn coding, finish homework and monitor themselves if someone is playing too much Fortnite. There's also a kitchen, donated by Rachael Ray, that provides every child a hot meal per day, a music studio gifted by Eminem producer Jeff Bass, a fiber-optics learning laboratory and an open library with books ranging from a red 1,200-page law text outlining the torts process to multiple copies of Twilight.

It's why some kids came to the gym intent on on boxing and now rarely do at all, instead focusing on academics or the occasional soccer game on an adjacent field when the weather is nice. Boxing, in many ways, is used as the reward. If grades start to slip, the combination of Lusk, Mroz and Sweeney make the decision to take boxing away until there's improvement. In March, Sweeney benched one of his top fighters so he could get more individual time working with Lusk.

Sweeney calls a boxing ring "a polygraph machine" and sitting in one of his classrooms, dubs it "the interrogation room." Why? You can fake a lot of things a lot of places, but the two places the truth in preparation shows up is in the ring and the classroom.

A parent brings her child to Sweeney. The kid is having trouble at school. He's getting bullied, struggling in class and acting out at home. The child's therapists diagnose one thing, but Sweeney tells the parent to wait. Not that he doesn't believe the diagnosis, but he wants to have a conversation first. That's Sweeney's up front and straightforward style. His results are in the turnarounds of the kids in the gym.

"Usually in two-to-three minutes I can turn back to that parent and say, 'Listen, your son doesn't have an anger issue. He has an acceptance issue,' " Sweeney said. "'His peers ridicule him because of the way he dresses. And so he feels so under pressure and under attack and they ridicule the way he dress and every move he makes to the point where he's lashing out because he's constantly under that much pressure.'"

Sweeney's gift is how he reads and speaks with children -- something he taught himself over time. His storytelling comes from his family lineage. Learning to read and understand language, he said, included watching "Dora the Explorer" on television with his child. Now, Sweeney reads regularly and quotes Aristotle and Shakespeare.

Reading people and understanding them is a skill developed from searching for ways to listen and communicate when he didn't know how to read and write. Now, those skills are used daily in interactions with students, either one-on-one or as a group before boarding their gym-provided vans at 7 p.m. daily to head home.

There's also something else -- and it might be the real reason he has engendered so much trust.

"Khali as a person, not just with downtown boxing, he's a smart man," Bocachica said. "He helped me do a lot of things. Life isn't just a beautiful picture where I just came by and said I made it here. I got a lot of help from everybody in here.

"[Khali] would pick me up from school. He would take me here to [be with a] tutor. He would take me here to box. If I wouldn't have a ride, he would pick me up. He was just always there."

Bocachica graduated the program and still returns almost daily to train at the gym -- either with his father or Sweeney. He'll often shadowbox on the side or lightly spar in the ring. Occasionally, he'll work with a younger student as well. He understands what the gym gave to him -- personally and professionally. Bocachica trusts Sweeney implicitly. The younger fighters now also look to Bocachica as a role model. He knows that and wants to be a positive influence. And he has seen the importance of being there every day, both as a mentor and a student.

The importance of being there came from Sweeney's own past. He said he saw connectivity, positive and support working in the Detroit suburbs and on a trip visiting family in Las Vegas. He didn't have that and seeing this pushed Sweeney to help those in similar positions to him even more. Why shouldn't kids in his community have a place they could feel safe and giving them similar opportunities.

That used to come in now-gone recreation centers. His gym - and other programs like it - fill that void.

"[I'm] just trying to put everybody on the right path, give everybody a safe place to go," Sweeney said. "In my old neighborhood, I used to build basketball rims and set up tables, go find tables, and set up chessboards.

"Whenever I had any money I would go buy tables and chessboards and set them up. I've always been trying to make a community center. That's always been my goal and always been my dream."

The ones who listened to his story were the ones he wanted to reach anyway: children. They weren't beaten down by the unfairness of life. They still had hope. He wanted to provide a safe place to learn and train. He started with his son. Then his friends.

"He was talking about it and started working on it, working on it," King, one of the gym's trainers said. "He's a hard worker. There's times I'd be driving past after doing something and he'd be carrying this big locker by.

"I'd stop and be like, 'Khali, you need help?' He'd be like, 'No, I'm good, coach.'"

This earned respect. King saw Sweeney was living in the old Buick and then in the gym, running generators when the kids were there for warmth -- and sleeping in the cold when they were gone. He bartered personal training sessions for tutoring for his students. Standing off to the side watching his students one day, Sweeney makes it clear: "This is everything for me." It's why he's guarded. He has given all of himself to the gym and the students. At one point he said he dropped from 218 to 150 pounds. Eventually, he let one person in -- someone who initially came for personal training. It's altered his -- and the gym's -- trajectory.

Jessica Hauser arranged for a training session through a mutual friend who boxed professionally. A Ph.D student focused on International Children's Rights at Michigan in 2010, she showed up for what she thought was a normal workout. By the time she left, her life changed.

Hauser peppered Sweeney with questions for hours. Sweeney essentially ignored her, keeping his focus on training the kids. When she eventually broke through, Hauser was enthralled and offered help. Sweeney said thanks, but he was temporarily closing the gym. He was never going to abandon the idea, but out of money, he needed to recalibrate. He had already sold almost everything he owned, bartered his time and was living there.

"I was like, well, there is clearly something special here," Hauser says now, sitting in a classroom in the new gym she helped build. "This place can't close. Asked if I could get involved and have not left since."

That was 2010. She's now the nonprofit's executive director. The Ph.D. she studied for remains 18 months from completion like it was eight years ago. Sweeney and Hauser shared the same ambition, the same drive. Their disparate backgrounds -- Sweeney a black man from inner city Detroit, Hauser a white woman from Birmingham, Michigan -- and different skill sets meshed well. Sweeney is the dynamic speaker. Hauser had the nonprofit understanding.

Together they became the inner circle of a gym that has slowly expanded and filled with employees that boast similar core characteristics: Be up front. Tell the truth. Share your story. Be authentic with kids who have their own tales to tell.

"People ask me all the time what's the magic of this place," Sweeney said. "The magic of this place is the fact that I'm willing to give my testimony and all these people around here are willing to give their testimonies."

And those testimonies led to the same goal: helping the kids.

Most of the kids enrolled in the program understand where they were headed before the gym. Academics were failing and they were running with the wrong crowds, getting into situations leaving them bullied or worse. This program, through boxing, taught them to defend themselves with their fists if necessary. And in the larger picture of life, it kept them away from situations where they might have to use them.

"I would for sure be in JDF. Juvenile Delinquent Facility," said 16-year-old Branden B., a longtime member of the program. "I was horrible. I got into stealing, too, grew up around people, my stepbrothers who are in that gang life and people trying to hang with them."

Returning to the program -- Branden left it at an earlier age -- helped save him and refocused his studies. While the gym has a waiting list, Sweeney often says "the streets have no waiting list."

Sweeney and his gym would like the waiting list to shrink. Grants, including a $500,000 one spread over two years from the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation in April, help fund the gym's mission. Last year, Sweeney was a finalist for a CNN Heroes award. The attention brought an influx of new donors. Yet Sweeney cares just as much as the longtime donor from Florida sending him $5 a year. He doesn't know the man. Just knows if he gets his $5, he's still doing something right.

After years of worrying about staying afloat, there is some stability and a $1.7 million yearly operating budget. They have a board of directors with experience ranging from nonprofit to human resources for Ford to employees with the city of Detroit to help with grant writing, strategic planning and keeping the mission on track. All visit the gym multiple times a month. It's building to something at which Sweeney has hinted, something the wait list almost demands: expansion.

"I want it to be all over the planet," Sweeney said with a massive, infectious smile. "Over the whole planet. I'm talking remote places. Wherever you can think of."

Ten years ago, his vision was a gym to help a handful of neighborhood kids, and today it's making a real difference in Detroit. The alumni base is starting to grow and he's hoping the gym can be a connectivity point to help with jobs, relationships and rebuilding parts of the city.

They have the beginning of a plan, too, although no clear timeline. Part of the $500,000 grant is for an apprenticeship plan to find future Khali Sweeneys to establish the future of the organization. Sweeney, of course, is involved in all of this. He won't divulge what he's looking for in an apprentice, saying he can't give away "the secret sauce." He'll know him or her when he sees them.

He also knows he can't rest. He talks to the kids. Listens to the news. Reads the stories. He doesn't let himself think, at all, of his path from high school dropout to a man responsible for the bettering of educations of his city's children and where his gym might be headed.

"To sit and think about all that kind of stuff is to jump up and down and do a victory lap and celebrate and spike the football like you really won something," Sweeney said in April. "The job is not done. The job is not complete.

"We had [multiple] shootings last week," he says emphatically. "The job is not done. There's a lot of crazy stuff going on right now. Kids still behind in grades. We can't do victory laps yet."

Khali Sweeney has lived that life. He can't celebrate. There's still too much work to be done.