Books and Boxing: One Man’s Mission to Keep Detroit Students Safe

For some kids, the hours between school ending and a parent coming home from work are filled with uncertainty. With no supervision, it can be easy to fill that time doing activities that could get them into trouble instead of more positive things like homework.

That’s exactly what Detroit native Khali Sweeney experienced. “I saw friends get killed, go to prison and waste their life—I didn’t learn to read or write until I was 29 years old.” he says. “I didn’t want to see even more children go through that.”

Ten years ago, with that mission in mind, Khali started the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program on the city’s east side. “It was a no-brainer for me,” he says. “I saw kids with no place to go, nothing to do, and they were getting into trouble. I wanted to create a welcoming environment that was a safe place for kids to be active. But I also wanted to make sure we were educating them on everything from math and spelling to health and financial literacy.”

That led to some unique programming. When students, ages 8 through 18, check in at the boxing gym each weekday, they make the rounds through a series of different educational stations, including math, reading, social studies, and even music and computer coding classes before boxing. Because each afternoon starts with schoolwork, participants see some pretty huge skill improvements.

“We’ve had 12th graders come in who were reading at a 4th grade level,” says Khali. “We get them up to a college level.”

Once the children hit each educational station, it’s gym time. And as you might guess from the name, many participants, both male and female, pursue boxing. “We start with strength and conditioning programs, so they run, then jump rope, then do some shadow boxing,” says Khali. “Then the kids can hit the bag and do individual training with coaches.”

Why boxing? It’s the sport Khali knows best. “I don’t know how to play basketball and I can’t catch a baseball,” he says. But it turns out that boxing is the perfect sport for these kids. “When you’re boxing, you have to be able to focus—everything happens in a split second and the guy in front of you has trained just as hard as you,” he says. “You also need discipline to react in a specific way when something happens. Those skills translate directly over to life: You need to focus, stay on task and not over-react. Kids who would normally fight in school start walking away and saying that it’s not worth it.”

On top of that, students in the free, after-school program are required to do community service, whether it’s working in the gardens of Detroit’s Forgotten Harvest or playing baseball with The Miracle League, a team for kids with special needs.

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Since 2007, Downtown Boxing Gym has had 275 students complete the program —and 100 percent have graduated from high school. The current group has 140 students; there’s a list of another 800 kids waiting to get in. By 2018, the gym’s goal is to grow significantly enough to serve 250 children. For more about the Downtown Boxing Gym and how you can help, head to

Photo credit: Downtown Boxing Gym

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