This essay is part of an occasional series provided by our partner organization Encore.org, which is building a movement to tap the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve communities and the world. Read more stories and share yours at Encore.org/story.
As a Roman Catholic kid growing up in East Toledo, Ohio, my dream was to become a priest. But when my father got taken off to prison, leaving my mother with four kids and no job, we moved to Weiler houses, aka the “projects.” That’s when I became a bad kid.
When you’re getting beat up every day, you learn to fight back. I hated the world. I had no respect for people. At school, I was rejected because of where I lived.
My father came back and got a job, and we moved to a better neighborhood. I made the baseball team at school, and when I made a mistake, the coaches said, “Don’t worry about it.” The positive environment of sports was new to me.
I went on to college and then to a job as a laborer at General Motors for 30 years. But I still felt lost. I didn’t know what my real purpose in life was. While working at GM, I met a boxing coach and helped him promote some local fights. I liked it, and one day he said to me, “Why don’t you open up a gym?” So I did, and it’s now my encore.
I use boxing and the gym as a hook, to reach kids on the streets, in gangs, from broken homes. In other words, kids like me.
At the International Boxing Club, everyone is welcome – boys and girls – and everything is free of charge. We train the kids in ring boxing, kickboxing, and cardio-exercise. We do it to build their self-image and their respect for others.
That’s also the goal of our “horseshoe talks,” in which a kid sits in the center chair and everyone pays him or her two compliments. Then I ask, “How did it feel to give a compliment? How did it feel to receive one? Do that every day, and watch how your life will change.”
Early on, I found out that 75 percent of my kids were failing in school, so I broke the news to them: “Kids, this means we’re not going to any tournaments. You’ve got to become a champion in life before you’re a champion in the ring.” Half of them quit on me!
I raised money to build a learning center at the gym, and my agreement with the kids is that they bring in their homework and study for one hour before they can work out. If they are failing in school, they can run and stretch, but they cannot put on the gloves or join in group exercises until their grades improve. Believe it or not, it works.
One young man came to the gym for all the wrong reasons. With drug dealers thick in his neighborhood, he wanted to learn how to fight, not box. One day, I was in the car with him as we drove past some beautiful homes. “I want a home like that someday,” he said. I told him, “Get an education, and you can.” He got his grades up and is now in college studying architecture. He’s going to beat the odds.
The gym is a safe haven, a “temple” as we call it, because it’s so much more than a gym. Every kid I help makes me feel proud.