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S3: Khali Sweeney of the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program- Episode #68

Khali Sweeney of the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program in Detroit

Listen in to the powerful testimony of a great leader, his overcoming a poor education and his will to push for experiences for the kids in the neighborhoods of Detroit. Hear why Khali has adopted the phrase ‘books before boxing.’  This is an incredible story of a true change maker.


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Romy: Welcome back to the Bonfires of Social Enterprise. This is Romy, and we have a real treat for you. We are joined by Khali Sweeney of the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program in Detroit.  Khali does not usually do interviews, and he granted us a favor and let’s us in on some of his passion for the kids and the big why’ for the boxing gym. And let me give you a little hint, his why has to do with his incredible testimony that he so humbly discusses.

Stay tuned to the end for a great Detroit artist and song.

Now, on this episode, we are changing it up a little bit. We have some new voices of the youth engaging with our show for the fun fuels. For all of our Jentzen fans, don’t worry, he is just making room for some of the great kids out there to have a chance to participate. If you have a son or daughter that would like to take part in the fun fuels, email us at bonfires@gingrasglobal.

So, our guest today for the fun fuel is Carter Hazen of Midland, Michigan. What do you have for us today, Carter?

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Welcome back to the Bonfires of Social Enterprise. This is Romy, and we have a real treat for you. We are joined by Khali Sweeney of the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program in Detroit. Khali does not usually do interviews, and he granted us a favor and let’s us in on some of his passion for the kids and the big why’ for the boxing gym. And let me give you a little hint, his why has to do with his incredible testimony that he so humbly discusses.
Stay tuned to the end for a great Detroit artist and song.

Now, on this episode, we are changing it up a little bit. We have some new voices of the youth engaging with our show for the fun fuels. For all of our Jentzen fans, don’t worry, he is just making room for some of the great kids out there to have a chance to participate. If you have a son or daughter that would like to take part in the fun fuels, email us at bonfires@gingrasglobal.
So, our guest today for the fun fuel is Carter Hazen of Midland, Michigan. What do you have for us today, Carter?

Carter: This is Carter Hazen and I am bringing you the Fun Fuel for this episode.
I did some research on the history of boxing, and, I found some particularly interesting facts about the boxing glove.
Accounts of boxing used for entertainment and sport dating back to the Roman Empire. Back in history, rawhide was used to protect the hands of the boxer and, sometimes, weapons were used.
Moving forward in history to 1741, a man named Jack Boughton, also known as the ‘Father of Boxing’, inspired rules and equipment after he accidentally fatally injured his opponent during his match. He began the writing of rules and experimenting with safer equipment to protect the head and brain. And, in 1865, the boxing glove was approved. Almost 40 years later, in 1904, the sport of boxing held its first match at the St. Louis Olympic Games. More than a century later, the sport continues to thrive thanks, in part, to a man named Jack Boughton, who decided to make change for good.
I hope you enjoyed this Fun Fuel… Enjoy the Episode.

Romy: Thank you, Carter! Wow, boxing and boxing gloves have come a long way!
Now, before we drop in on my conversation with Khali, I would like to point out that we did an episode in Season 1 with his right hand, Jessica, where she talks all about the history of the boxing gym. Just as a recap, Khali is the founder and President of the organization. He was the visionary behind the concept of a boxing organization for the youth in the surrounding neighborhoods of Detroit. But…he had an ulterior motive. He wanted to provide a safe place for the kids to be educated after school. Anyone who has spent any amount of time at the gym will hear him say these words ‘Books before boxing!’
Let’s drop in now on the part of my conversation with Khali.

Romy: Khali, how did you land on the fact that books would be so important over boxing?

Khali: It was obvious because a lot of kids are going through the same thing that I went through as a child. I was passed through school, my whole lifetime in school not even knowing how to read or write. I couldn’t read or write. Couldn’t spell. Barely knew the months of the year and in 2016 kids are still going through the same thing. I find kids that are being straight A students and when you ask them to spell something or read something they can’t do it. You know we find out when you test them, they’re testing at a second-grade level, and they’re in High school.

That was one of the things from when I started working with some of the kids in the community and started out just trying to give them a safe place to go to get em off the streets, and I realized that they’re going through the same problems. So it’s definitely books before boxing that’s the most important thing. So boxing took a back seat to everything. At that point, it was all about education.

Romy: I know boxing really attracts them here but how do you get the kids to open up and how to you start to dialogue with them about letting them know how important it is and let them open up when they might feel super vulnerable about that?

Khali: One of the things I found out later on in life, I had an opportunity to read something about a philosopher. He said you could find out more about a person in an hour of play then you can enjoy a lifetime of questioning. So when you in that relaxed environment you can ask someone a certain questions, and you can get an answer from it. And so they’ll open up to you once they uh … You know you just basically be honest with them, and it’s like when you are having fun, and your boxing, and your training, and you learning the discipline, they’ll open up to you and tell you a lot of things that they wouldn’t normally tell you.

Romy: Looking at somebody who they can relate to and you can sometimes share your story to help them open up yeah.

Khali: Yeah. I always give my testimony. I have no problem with it. A lot of people say to me like well you know, well why would you tell people that you couldn’t read. Because that’s my testimony. That’s what I have to give back to my community and give back to our kids. And if I have to put it on the line and do it, I’ll do it gladly every time. And I can tell kids not to go down a certain path. There’s help out there and not knowing how to read and write, you know for me … When you tell me I couldn’t read or write or I found out I couldn’t read or write or I found out that I was failing in school, I took it as a death sentence you know. A lot of people told me you’d be dead before you twenty-one.

And so it was like a death sentence to me, so I’m like why to try anything else then. So I just basically gave up on life. And so a lot of kids doing that now. They can’t read, they can’t write, they feel like they’re going to be the butt of all the jokes and what they’ll do is they’ll just give up to the, and give they self to the streets.

So it’s not a death sentence you can always find help. You just need the, you know, know where to find it at. It has to be available to you. One of the things is I want to put something into place where they can get that kind of help and where you don’t have to just give up on life.

Romy: Yeah or feel like you’ve only got one or two paths to succeed. Like there’s a lot of different ways to succeed in life but sometimes the hope diminishes, and you don’t feel like there are any other options for you.

Khali: One of the things that we been doing now is teaching kids, or exposing kids to stuff that they wouldn’t normally get exposed to. This summer they had the opportunity to do robotics and computer coding. Some of them went to horseback riding camp. Some of them went mountain climbing in Colorado. They did stand up paddle boarding. They did a lot of different things. They got exposed to a lot of different things. They did mock trials in the federal court system, and so they got exposed to a lot of things. So now we have an enrichment program we call it … I like the word enrichment because it actually enriches the kid’s lives and it brings something to the table that they normally wouldn’t be exposed to in their day to day life at school.

Romy: Yeah, and how many kids do you have now?

Khali: I believe it’s over 170 and we have over 700 on a waiting list.

Romy: I think last time, I was here about a year and a half ago, Jessica said there was about 350 on a wait list at that point. So it just keeps growing. I can only imagine you’d probably put another 1000 on there, wouldn’t you?

Khali: I don’t want to put kids on a waiting list. That’s the problem when you have these kids sitting around at home with nothing to do they find trouble or trouble finds them. I don’t want … Life has no waiting list; life has no pause button. You can’t put they life on pause something would come into they life. I would definitely want ’em to find some type of positive places like this or any other positive place that we can recommend for ’em.

Romy: It used to be about a 1000 dollars to sponsor a kid. Is it about the same? I want to let the listeners know how they can help.

Khali: With the growth that we had, we in a different facility now, a bigger facility. The cost of it is going up because we actually have another paid staff member. We actually have two more vans now that go out and pick up more kids. The cost is going up just a little bit, but it’s not that much to take a kid from a straight F student and turn a kid into a straight A student and graduate on time. 100% of our kids have been graduating on time and going to college or trade schools or whatever the case may be. There’s no price to put on that.

Romy: That’s right, that’s a good word, good marketing right there. We saw the other vans out there that’s exciting. So for people who don’t live in this area why are vans important around here?

Khali: We have an outdated transportation system here in the city. They’re doing a good job with trying to rebuild it right now which is good, but still, a lot of our kids live in some remote parts of the city, on the outskirts of the city and they have to get here. It’s not always the safest way to travel by bus or whatever the case may be. A lot of their parents don’t have transportation themselves. The vans are very important to getting the kids here, and getting them off the streets and giving them a place to go.

Romy: Yeah, and is it still mostly after school that you’re trying to connect with them right? They’re going during the day.

Khali: Yup, it’s after school. It’s four to seven Monday thru Friday. It’s free of charge. There’s no cost. All of our kids must do community service, though. They have to do to community service, it’s a big part of it, and that’s books before boxing. You don’t get a chance to compete for anything unless you get your grades in the position where we can track you.

Romy: And what kind of community service do you typically have them working on?

Khali: We do a lot of stuff. We do a lot of stuff with Gleaners and Forgotten Harvest. We go out and pick food for the hungry here in Michigan a lot. We do a lot of neighborhood cleanups and stuff like that. And anything else, if you’ve got something for us to do call us.

Romy: (Laughter) I’m sure there’s a lot of joint projects out there. Alright, so what’s been one of the things that have surprised you about the kids as you started this? Either with the school or the boxing? Is anything surprised you about what the kids have achieved?

Khali: What surprised me the most is that a lot of kids came here with this impression that they are going to be a famous fighter or something. But they left knowing that they could be doctors or lawyers and stuff like that. So for me to change their mindset of thinking that you gonna be some famous athlete, which rarely happens in history. I mean those are rare occasions that people become famous athletes, but if you put education as plan A and not plan B you can always become a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, you know something like that, we just want … You know architects. We have kids that are in medical school now. We have kids that had an opportunity to go to a collage of creative studies and different places and great universities all across the country, so it’s cool to see that. You don’t often see a professional fighter.

Romy: Right or many would say they don’t live as long if that’s their main thing.

Khali: Right right you know boxing is a short-lived career. You ready for retirement at 30. I know some doctors and stuff they still going.

Romy: That’s right.

Khali: Still making money.

Romy: Or even serving right yeah. It’s a way to help serve others. Well, that’s exciting and how many kids have gone through the program no so far?

Khali: Right off hand I don’t know the number, but you can ask Jessica. She definitely has the number for you.

Romy: Jessica’s been a real blessing hasn’t she?

Khali: Oh Yeah she’s the life blood of this organization.

Romy: She’d say the same thing about you.

Khali: Oh no no that lady’s up all day and night working on this thing. She’s sacrificed a lot.

Romy: Well she’s inspired, it inspires her. Well, what are the things that you’re working on, dreaming about for the kids these days?

Khali: Well for the gym right now the most important thing is making sure that the building is where it needs to be as far as like the roof, and we don’t want to keep spending a lot of money on like utilities you know when the building is not really, the roof is not really insulated as it should be. The bricks are not insulated. So we want to get this building insulated so we can stop bleeding money in utilities. So we have to get this building insulated.

Romy: So that would be priority number one.

Khali: Priority number one is to get the building insulated and fix that roof.

Romy: Is someone working on that for you right now?

Khali: We’re working on it.

Romy: Okay. I know how that goes as an entrepreneur. I’m doing it.

Khali: We’re shaking the can right now.

Romy: Okay. Alright, and what else? What’s beyond that, that you envision? I know you dream about things for the kids.

Khali: You know it’s just more enrichment things. I was happy to do this enrichment stuff this summer where we actually had an opportunity to send a lot of kids out to learn stuff. To sit down with professionals and like I said to do mock trials in the Federal court system. If we can get some more stuff like that going that’d be wonderful. It would be awesome if we could get them in some tech based companies or something like that. That’s what I would like to see.

Romy: So, Jessica handles most of the administrative stuff. She handles a lot of the strategic planning and that. I know your eyes are on the kids. What is your main concern that you are trying to make sure that the kids get here?

Khali: Just make sure that they get here safely. They learn how to deal with conflicts in a manner that is not violent. Teach them about the importance of walking away from certain situations and surround themselves with the right people, people of the same mindset of going forward and doing positive things in their life and staying away from negative crowds and negative vibes. I’m just basically teaching life lessons to kids. If I have to use myself as an example, then I tell them about it all the time, so they don’t have to go down that path.

Romy: I mean sometimes people just don’t have someone speaking the truth to them, right?

Khali: Yeah, a lot of stuff that they see, imagery that they see on TV and throughout the day and them day to day lives is like all based off of … A lot of it is based on the lack of knowledge of what is really going on. If you peel it back just a little bit, you can find out what’s really going on and the truth if you look out there for it. You know the internet is not just used for watching videos. You can use the internet to gain information and stuff. We have to put them to some of the right websites and stuff like that instead of just always negative websites of people fighting or doing something ridiculous or talking about negative stuff. We can talk about positive things and look at other parts of the world, and maybe one day you can go there and travel there and do some of these things.

That’s what I like to do because I grew up with guys that haven’t been off the block. These guys are in the same spot that I left 20, 30 years ago. They are standing in the same spot talking about the same things. If they are not in prison, they are in prison themselves in a four block radius. They are in the same neighborhoods doing the same thing that they were doing 20 years ago. I would hate to see another generation go down that path.

Romy: Yeah, is that how you started to get interested in maps and bridges and some of that?

Khali: Yeah, you know it’s like I had to open my mind and stop just looking at the stuff that was around me and start thinking about what else is in the world. My older brother was a big part of telling me that. He’s like, “The world is bigger than your neighborhood, man. You have to get out of this neighborhood. The world is bigger than that.” At the time when he said it, I was thinking to myself like “Shut up, I don’t want to hear that fantasy talk.” You know what I mean? The world is right here. One day I really looked around, and it was like it was nothing there. It was nothing. It was hopelessness. It was despair. There were no resources. There were nothing around me.

It took him to actually get me to come to his house. He showed me a picture at his house. It was all of my friends. He told me. He said, “All of you friends are either dead or in jail. All of your friends are either dead or in jail.” He took me to his house and told me to help him move some stuff around at his house. When I was moving it, he said, “Look at that picture.” It was like all of my friends. Most of these guys were dead or in jail or on the run, you know, about to be going to prison. It took him to really open my eyes to it, so I’m trying to open a lot of these kids eyes to what’s really going on. If they really look, they are losing friends at a crazy rate. A lot of their friends are getting murdered now. We have kids here who are small kids who’ve seen guys with their heads blown off already. That’s just like they are living in a war zone. We want to steer them away from that type of stuff.

Romy: Do the kids know that you have a passion for maps and bridges?

Khali: I don’t think so. They may come in my office now and then. I don’t think they pay attention to it. I love bridges. I love to travel. I love just meeting different cultures and different people, stuff like that you know?

Romy: Yeah, we do too at Gingras Global. We go around the world if we have an opportunity. We have listeners in 90 countries. Our listeners will be happy to hear that you like to travel.

Khali: If you in Poland in Dobry … If you in Macedonia [zavel 00:03:52].

Romy: Wow, we do have listeners in some of those cities actually.

Khali: Oh yeah?

Romy: Yes.

Khali: If you are in the Middle East, [foreign language 00:03:58] if it’s morning, [foreign language 00:04:00] noon if it’s afternoon.

Romy: That’s greetings in a lot of different cultures. I know that from my travel. Wow, well done. That’s impressive. That just threw me off; I’ve got to admit.

Khali: We can keep going.

Romy: Yeah, any of your international connections helping to support here?

Khali: We have a lot of good organizations that are reaching out, you know, doing their part. We can always use more help all the time. People are running companies. They can’t just give all their resources away. They have to still maintain their business. At the same time, we do get support from a lot of different organizations. You can go on our website and see a list of names.

Romy: Okay, we will. We want to give them a shout out.

Khali: I don’t want to miss anybody.

Romy: That’s right. Alright, so is there anything else you would like to share about this organization with someone who might not have heard of it before?

Khali: I think we covered it.

Romy: Thank you, so much, Khali for spending a little bit of time with us. You are an incredible inspiration! If anyone out there feels inspired to financially support them, understand you can save lives. Or, if you are a local Detroit resident, buy a ticket to one of their competitions. I promise you will be amazed at the talent!
We hope and pray that many stories come from the kids attending the boxing gym and that lives are transformed!

Okay, time to close out with another great artist provided to us by our friends at Assemble Sound of Detroit. Please meet Chad Roto with his song, Middle of Love.

Until next time…Keep those bonfires burning!


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