The Man with the Bag

As the holiday season approaches, it’s all too easy to get subsumed by the tide of commercialism and overawed by the weight of festive expectation. We can easily forget what’s important at this time of year: family. And family comes in all shapes and sizes.

It’s also about keeping perspective, a word we use a lot. For us, a changed perspective allows us to see the world in a different way, expanding our understanding of it and often increasing our respect for it. It can open our eyes to the way other people live and sharing in their challenges helps us to manage and navigate our own. As I reflect and look back on the last twelve months, mentally reviewing the impact we’ve made and the impact others have made on us, I found myself thinking about a very special partner we worked with, one that is building an incredible community family. It’s a story that affected me deeply and an important one to share.

The Downtown Boxing Gym is located on the east side of Detroit, Michigan in the USA. A place of deep inspiration and hope, built through the commitment and sheer grit of the gym’s founder and CEO, Khali Sweeney, and executive director, Jessica Hauser.

Meeting them, hearing their stories, and experiencing their drive, compassion and joy was a profound experience for me. But it has a much more profound impact on the young people it works with – providing them with hope, structure, love and the personal discipline to create a meaningful future.

With a mantra of ‘books before boxing’, the Downtown Boxing Gym provides young people from the local community an opportunity to step into someplace safe and supportive. The children are provided with academic support that enables them to succeed in their studies. The programme uses the self-discipline and ‘street prestige’ of boxing as a hook.

Every day after school, 150 students walk through the boxing gym’s doors and into a place where they feel they belong. There, they get help with their schoolwork from a committed and talented teaching staff, in addition to mentorship, enrichment programmes like computer coding, healthy meals, social support and a home away from home to play, to train and for those that want to, a chance to learn to box.

As Khali and Jessica explained, “Boxing attracts both the bullies and the bullied, which makes it such a powerful tool for engagement. Those that hurt others and those that are hurt by others need very similar things – love and attention, and the chance to be heard with the support of someone who doesn’t give up on them.”

“The children who come to the gym have to be able to trust us,” says Jessica “and trust doesn’t come easily. You’ve got to show people you care day in and day out.”

She continues, “The home and school environments for the children can be really challenging. If we let them down just once, that trust can be broken and we may never repair it. The gym becomes like a family to them.”

What they do clearly works. The gym is a vibrant place with a long waiting list and one of their key indicators of success – a 100 percent high school graduation rate since 2007.

Khali explains that education is everything. As a younger man, he lived a different life. Khali was disaffected by the education system and dropped out of school. He was a gang member for a while before some powerful perspective shifting conversations diverted his path. These helped him to change course and led him to set up the gym.

His belief is that education is the key to changing the life outcomes of the young people he works with. Through education they can get a better job, secure their future, provide for others, create stability and start taking positions of influence.

Through our various engagements, I got a chance to sit with Jessica and Khali and talk with them about their own journeys. With each story of sacrifice they made to get the gym up and running, my admiration deepened. Sleeping in cars, selling everything they had, being threatened by gang members; the path to success was a rocky road. As the stories mounted, so did my need to ask a key question: what kept them going in the face of such adversity?

The man with the bag.

“I know that the moment we let down one of these kids, they walk out of here,” Khali explains, “and they don’t come back. The moment we miss something important that’s happening in their lives, that we didn’t do something about, there’s a man with a bag just waiting around the corner. Just waiting to welcome them with open arms.”

That bag contains drugs, a firearm and a very different life path.

Preventing that from happening is the driving force behind the gym. It’s such an amazing story of hope and success and one that in troubling times is vital to celebrate. There are children all around the world welcoming a totally different man with a bag in a few weeks. Not everyone will get what they want but at the Downtown Boxing Gym, thanks to Khali, Jessica and their incredible team, a lucky group of children will continue to get what they need.

At this time of year, it’s important to remember those who go above and beyond to help and support our communities. We can’t solve all the problems of the world and we can’t all be like Khali and Jessica, but we can support them. If you would like to join us in doing so, please do so here

Family is sometimes the people you have, sometimes the people you choose, and sometimes the people you are gifted with. Whoever you share this festive time with, we wish you the very best of the holiday season and hope you have a wonderful 2020.

Happy Holidays!