Khali Sweeney Leads, Feeds, Teaches Detroit’s Children

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Don’t Focus on “Boxing”

Khali Sweeney. Reggie McKenzie. Jalen Rose. Lomas Brown. Jerome Bettis.

Back up. Who is Khali Sweeney and the Detroit Downtown Boxing Gym? Why is he included in this list of nonprofit groups?

Sweeney has created a nonprofit after-school program focused on helping Metro Detroit children. Sweeney’s Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program leads, feeds, teaches Detroit children while guiding and mentoring them off the streets. There are kids in their programs who may or may not play sports at all. Ever.

Sweeney, an Eastside Detroit native, is a 2017 Top 10 CNN Hero of the Year nominee for the program he dubbed Downtown Boxing Gym, a now 10-year-old program that he began to get kids off the street. (Are you still expecting me to talk about boxing? This is not about boxing, not really at all.)

CNN will announce its 2017 CNN Hero of the Year at 8 p.m. Sunday, December 17th. Voting for Khali Sweeney means that the Downtown Boxing Gym would be the benefactor of the $100,000 that will be awarded. It all goes to the children.

Today, Sweeney’s program is Downtown Boxing Gym. But it’s a NOT a boxing program. I REPEAT. This is not a youth boxing gym. Sweeney leads, feeds, and teaches. Many children will never box or play sports at this gym. They come in to have a safe place from the streets.

Sweeney’s Story

Sweeney began getting kids off the street at what was then an old car wash which was eventually condemned. Sweeney found other locations to mentor, lead, support and help kids. It became a 501(c)3 in 2010 and formed a board.

The name: Downtown Boxing Gym may mislead people due to Detroit’s history with the sport, but Sweeney won’t let you get it twisted. He is clearly protective (as he should be) of his program for at-risk youth.

This program is at capacity with 156 children from across Metro Detroit. There are 850 on the waiting list. NOT to box, but to get off the streets so that the children may begin to get help with academics, food, survival and guidance.

Sweeney said he originally came out of his own pockets to feed Detroit kids nearby where he lived in 2007. Sweeney, who said he taught himself to read, went to many schools, has been shot, involved in the streets, and pulled himself out of gangs.

Now, he mentors and leads kids from whatever it is that each may be dealing with. Boxing is only allowed when a child gets his or her life in order. This is not a boxing factory, nor is it a place to come to fight or get out frustrations as most boxing gyms are. They may workout but are equipped to survive in life, first.

Boxing is the Name, Not the Game

The challenge for outsiders like me is that name “Boxing.” Yes, there are kids boxing, but that’s only if they get grades, discipline, fitness and other important life strategies ironed out first. Then and only then are they be allowed to train.

Was Sweeney a boxer or a fighter? No. Sweeney wasn’t a pro, but he sparred professionals in Detroit gyms. Sweeney explained that he liked the discipline of boxing. But Sweeney got wise to the ways of what happens to overconfident sparring partners. They get knocked out and often for free.

Sweeney instead got out and began his program because as he said, he saw people “being killed wholesale in the streets of Detroit.”

The Downtown Boxing Gym

Fast forward. It’s 10 years later. It’s 3:45 p.m. on December 8, 2017. I walked into an incredible facility for children that looks on the outside like a warehouse on Vernor Avenue on Detroit’s east side that says: Downtown Boxing Gym. There are white vans with children getting out and then coming in the door of the “Gym.”

They’re ages elementary to high school, each child signing in with backpacks and coming in from the cold. They’re first going to class, to get something to eat, then, after homework and help, they may have time to run around the gym…the way kids run, not like boxers training.

I repeat: This is not a boxing gym. It is a non-profit that helps children.

There is a Lot of Need in Detroit

Having worked with the Reggie McKenzie Foundation in Highland Park, Michigan, I know a good solid program when I see it. McKenzie’s football camp is in its 44th year and McKenzie’s Afterschool Program, summer programs and others were and are instrumental in changing and saving children’s lives for decades.

At Sweeney’s direction, the focus is NOT boxing, not sports. It is books. It is academics. It is food. It is rules, manners. It’s life lessons. It’s guidance, attention and care. It’s a massive commitment. It is taking kids off the streets and supporting them as needed. And there is a lot of need in Detroit.

Don’t come in here looking for future fighters. Look instead for future leaders.

This is a Non-Profit Created to Help Children

I went to the “Gym” fully expecting young fighters to be training. (It’s the name, Khali. That’s all.)

But instead of fighters, I found happy children. I saw children running, jumping rope, but only–I discovered, after they had done their homework and had their snacks. But they were jumping and running in the gym, the way children run, not the way boxers run.

Excuse my ignorance, Mr. Sweeney, due solely to the name of the program, I thought I might find the next young fighter from Detroit. I get it now. Hopefully, so will others. I’m not stuck on stupid. I’m a boxing writer who thought the gym would have fighters. I know I’m not alone, but I get it now.

Not Another “K” Word

This is different than 30 years ago, when I went into boxing gyms and there were only fighters. This is not the next “K” word. Don’t say it (The “K” Word) because this is something else altogether.

It’s a common mistake, Sweeney said, and maybe it will be clarified for the worldwide media onslaught of attention brought to his “Gym.”

When I Met Some of the Children

Sweeney explained that he used to have to force kids to take food. That they were ashamed because they didn’t want others to know they were hungry.

What brought it all home for me was when I met some of the children. A young boy, no more than 8 or 9 years old walked up to me as I toured the facility shooting B-roll for video. The conversation was enlightening and went like this:

“Hi there,” he said, as I walked by. He was jumping rope dressed in street clothes. He was watching himself in a mirror and making faces. Like kids do. He was good, but good like a kid should be good at jumping rope at this age. He was playing, not training. Having a great time with crossovers, missing and starting again.

“You a boxer?” he asked me.

“No,” I laughed. I just write about boxers. “Are you a boxer?”

“No,” he laughed and started showing me his rope skills again. Then he stopped.

“Have you seen other boxing gyms?” he asked.

“Yes, a lot, of boxing gyms all over the world. Have you seen other boxing gyms?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I came here because I can get food. Do they feed you at the other gyms?”

“No,” I said. “They don’t give you food.”

“This is my third day here, or is it five?” he said aloud. “I’ll keep coming because I can get something to eat for sure. They help me with homework and I HAVE to show them my backpack to prove it’s done.”

Another little girl wearing a silver sparkled top and black pants, maybe 10 or 11 years old, came up and introduced herself to me. She stuck out her hand, looked me in my eyes, told me her name and said it was nice to meet me.

“Are you a boxer,” she asked. “You’re tall like one.”

“Nope. I’m a writer. I came to check this place out.”

“Oh, OK,” she smiled and walked back towards the classrooms at the urging of her tutor. She returned seconds later.

“Nice to meet you Rebekah,” she said and ran back to class.

The Facility

Sweeney has a facility which includes a one-on-one tutoring room, a reading room, a math room, a computer lab, a kitchen, offices for tutoring, and oh, yes, a library.

I looked for boxers, young amateurs, but on this day, the day before a Detroit Silver Gloves Tournament to be held at the venue, there were no boxers. Sweeney battles to keep the kids active and faces an uphill climb in the world of Detroit boxing which is very controlled.

In the main area were two big raised boxing rings with seats surrounding them. There is boxing gear in the gym. Sweeney explained there would be a local event so there were no boxers in the gym today. They were resting for the Saturday, December 9th competition.

Proud of the Children

There are boxing trophies but they are not front and center. They’re actually in the back of the kitchen and above the stove and fridge.

Sweeney was proud that although his kids don’t really box full time or go as hard as kids in other gyms in New York, Ohio, and other countries, that they had done well. But Sweeney was proud like a parent with children who made their mark on life, not like a boxing promoter in the making. He beamed, actually when he spoke of the student achievements, more so than the boxing.

Sweeney does have a Hall of Fame towards the entrance of the classrooms. These are pictures young men who do happen box, but Sweeney is clear that his pride lies in the academic and life achievements and progress that the young people have made. Who would not be proud of children who battle for success in all they do?

Boxing has brought many people many different things. Sweeney will clearly continue to affect change in this arena. Stay tuned and be certain to vote. Sweeney has many more kids to help out there and as the brochure explains: “The streets have no waiting list.”

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