“Up, down, straight.”
“And up, down, straight.”
Coach Ali Easley repeats the commands several more times to the group of students finishing their stretches, lying in the ring, sweating. [wrest2]
Another group enters the Crown Boxing Club and prepares for their daily training. Easley sends the stretching students home and greets the newcomers. The bare walls of the gym, a rectangular room recently painted in blue and yellow, wait for piles of pictures to be hung up. Soon enough, the gym resounds with the thuds of punching balls and echoes of kicked speed bags.
This is the scene at the Crown Boxing Club every day when 20 to 30 kids practice boxing through Help a Willing Kid (HAWK), a foundation that offers activities and mentorship to children in impoverished North Lansing neighborhoods. HAWK believes kids can benefit greatly from sporting activities. This year alone, approximately 350 children and teenagers, ages 8 to 22, have been able to participate in swimming, running or boxing because of HAWK.
The foundation oversees the activities, which take place at the Lansing Community College(LCC), Otto Middle School and the Crown Boxing Club. All of the foundation’s staff members are volunteers. Students from MSU and LCC will offer their time to serve as lifeguards, swim instructors or tutors, said Easley, the president and boxing coach for HAWK.
The tall, bald-headed coach with a pierced ear, who used to be a boxer, wanted to give back what he got out of the sport. Boxing with Fabian Williams, Joe Lipsey and Roger Turner, who all became famous in the 1990s, made Easley realize boxing could really make one successful. He also thought boxing could help disadvantaged kids succeed in life, if not in the ring.
Easley founded HAWK in 1994 to be a positive force for children in the neighborhood. At that time, he was also a coach at the Crown Club and, when he realized the children at the foundation were interested in boxing, he built a partnership between HAWK and the boxing club.
[moses] “Boxing brings discipline, a key to any young [man or woman],” said Moses Manuel, a coach at the Crown Club for the past 15 years. “It keeps the children focused on something so they don’t get in trouble, in gangs or into stealing.”
At the foundation, the children learn self-discipline, self-respect, teamwork, time management and to have a healthy diet. HAWK also organizes food and clothing drives for the local community. “We try to make the kids understand why we get back to the community, it gives them a sense of accomplishment,” Easley said.
In addition to being coaches, Easley and Manuel also act as father figures for many of the children, according to Manuel. They greet the kids with handshakes, don’t drink, smoke or curse in front of them and ask for 25 push-ups per swear word. “We try to make them responsible,” Manuel said.
One of the most difficult aspects of the program, according to Easley, is getting the kids’ families involved. Many children live in single-parent homes where there is alcohol, drugs and sometimes domestic abuse. Some parents don’t know their child goes to the foundation and get very angry when they find out, Easley said. But sometimes, parents change as their kids flourish. Easley recalled an incident when a mother yelled that her dyslexic child was dumb. Easley told the child’s mother that her son was good at boxing, and now she sometimes takes him to the gym. “She seems to be more involved in his life than before,” Easley said.
Boxing is the most popular HAWK program with 150 kids this year. About 40 percent, ages 16 to 19, are at the senior level. Every week day, they run six miles, swim one mile, weight train for two hours and box from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. The juniors, ages 8 to 16, have a shorter version of the same program. Both groups compete every other weekend, and sometimes twice a week.
The boxers’ hard work certainly pays off. In March, two seniors will represent Michigan at the Regional LBC tournament. Christian Thomas, who won the state title, will compete in the light heavyweight division (178 lbs), while Brandon Lavardain will be alternate for the middleweight (165 lbs). If they win, they will advance to the U.S. Championships in Colorado Springs. If they win the Nationals, they will go to the Olympic trials.
Lavardain, a 6’5″ native of Auburn Hills in suburban Detroit, started boxing two years ago at the age of 20. “Hit, don’t get hit” is his philosophy and his arm reach is his best weapon. Though he is an alternate at the Regional LBC, Lavardain is likely to fight if his Michigan teammate doesn’t recover in time from a recent injury. He also will focus on the Golden Gloves tournament trials in March. “I want to make it to the nationals to get ranked in USA boxing and eventually be a pro,” Lavardain said.
Even the younger participants are proving winners in the boxing ring. Ten-year-old Angelo Flores won the Ringside World Tournament twice, in 2006 and 2007. Though intimidated, he was very happy to win. “I wanted to make my dad proud,” Flores said. [ring2]
A Lansing native, Angelo started boxing at the foundation at the age of 6. He remembers losing his first fight at 8 years old, but winning the second by knocking out his opponent. Despite his youth, Angelo has learned to be responsible. At the gym, he guides the new kids who want to give boxing a try. At school, he refuses to fight and tell his classmates to come to the gym and see what boxing is really all about.
To make the program as successful as it is, HAWK needs to increase their funding. The foundation is working on its $58,000 budget for next year. “When you mention boxing, so many people shy away from you,” Easley said. HAWK’s biggest fundraisers, Mercantile Bank and Jackson National Life Insurance, play a key part in making HAWK possible. Demmer Corporation is also a major sponsor of the Crown Club, Easley said, which indirectly contributes to HAWK’s boxing program. Other businesses, such as Domino’s Pizza, Meijer, Wal-Mart and Kroger, give in-kind donations or gift cards, Easley said. HAWK also organizes bake sales and silent auctions to raise money. When money is scarce, however, the staff ends up putting their own money into the programs. If it is not enough, they must limit the number of programs and kids, Easley said.
[gordon] HAWK also relies heavily on its volunteer staff. College students can be a good source of volunteerism, but many have never heard about it. Although environmental journalism graduate Gordon Shetler has been at MSU since 2002, he never heard of HAWK. “It sounds like a good way for students to connect with the larger community and help people who need it,” Shetler said. But HAWK may need more publicity because the students often stay in Okemos or East Lansing and don’t know what Lansing has to offer, he said.
However, one campus group is very familiar with HAWK. The MSU chapter of the Phi Sigma Pi National Honor Fraternity works closely with the organization, raising money for them throughout the year. “We found HAWK because a previous member of Phi Sigma Pi took a boxing class with Coach Easley and fell in love with the organization,” said Amy Kovas, Phi Sigma Pi treasurer and fundraising co-chair. “At the time, we were also looking for a charity to benefit at our annual Teeter-Totter-A-Thon last spring, so the other co-chair and I went into the club and met all of the kids and Coach Easley and we ended up benefiting them.”
Besides the Teeter-Totter-A-Thon, Phi Sigma Pi also sponsors a holiday party for HAWK, raises money for the organization at their golf outing and gathers bags of clothes at their clothing drive. According to Kovas, a supply chain management junior, Phi Sigma Pi has raised nearly $2,500 for the organization over the past year. “Our whole chapter has fallen in love with these kids and coach Easley,” Kovas said. “We have a close tie to them and get regular e-mail updates. Right now, they are fixing their roof, so some of our money went towards that. It always makes us feel good to hear about where our money is going and that the events we put on makes a difference for these kids.”
With support from its current staff, while constantly looking for ways to raise money necessary for the programs, HAWK’s young boxers are preparing for several competitions, particularly the Golden Gloves tournament. If they qualify, they’ll go to the Nationals, held in Grand Rapids in May.
Boxing is the HAWK’s biggest program, but it’s only one among others. If, 15 years from now, a kid from the foundation becomes a king on the ring, he will probably look back on his time with HAWK as a strong and positive influence in his life. At the same time, many others from HAWK may remain unknown. But they will have been given strength and skills to lead their lives outside of the ring.
“Up, down, straight.”