Birmingham native Jessica Hauser was looking for a new fitness regimen in 2010 when she met with Khali Sweeney at the Downtown Boxing Gym on Detroit's eastside. What she found was a mission that would change the lives of hundreds of children, as well as her own.
"My friend is a professional boxer, but he never told me of the mission work going on there. He only said he boxed there, but he suggested I work with his coach. Growing up in Birmingham, going to a building in a neighborhood where I knew nobody – it wasn't the most comfortable thing. But one day I did it," Hauser said, now executive director of the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program. "I instantly felt something. It was packed with kids, wall to wall. I was used to adults talking and kids looking like they were listening, then doing what they want. But I saw kids helping each other with homework and interacting with adults in a real way."
In 2007, Sweeney set out to start a program that blended athletics and mentoring and education, as well as building a place that served as a safe haven for kids. Refusing to charge kids from the surrounding neighborhood, Hauser said Sweeney poured all his possessions into the gym, but it was still on the verge of closing when she arrived.
"I started right away on the legal paperwork so we could accept donations," Hauser said, of her initial work in helping to form a 501(c)3.
Essentially paying her own way to work at the gym for the first three years on the job, Hauser worked to build the trust of those in the community while trying to get donations and volunteers to support the gym.
"It was basically putting out fires on a daily basis, like trying to find $300 to keep the lights on. It didn't happen overnight, and it wasn't an easy path," she said. "But what gave me hope was that everyone who came down here felt that same thing that I felt, so I knew this would be successful. It just took time."
More than 75 percent of the gym's 125 students live within three miles of the gym. Since starting, 100 percent of the 267 kids that have gone through the gym program have graduated high school. Of those, 98 percent have gone through college. Current enrollment in the program is about 125 kids, with more than 700 on the waiting list.
Volunteers and donations, with celebrities such as Madonna and Eminem contributing, have helped to move the gym from its original 4,000-square foot building to a 27,500-square foot space. Vans donated to the gym allow pick-up and drop-off of students every day, and a kitchen donated by Rachael Ray and help from Forgotten Harvest feed kids dinner each day.
Hauser said the goal is to be able to enroll 250 kids in the program, which runs all year.
"Most kids are with us for four years. They start young and don't leave until they graduate from high school," she said. "The impact you can have on a kid for six or seven years, that's pretty powerful. And a lot say it's a judgement-free zone. They can take all the crap they get all day at school and home, and put it away here."
Photo: Laurie Tennent