Q & A with Downtown Boxing Gym

BY Taylor Rebhan

Downtown Boxing Gym’s youth program is a safe haven for local kids from Detroit’s toughest neighborhoods, and is a program being replicated all over the world. Kids aged 7-18 are given strong academic support, a demanding boxing program, and a connection to the community through voluntary service.

“Boxing is the ‘hook’ to get and keep kids in the program. Teaching them to be productive members of society is our passion,” says founder and program director Khali Sweeney.

Learn more about the program in our interview with DBG executive director Jessica Hauser below, and shop the entire limited edition Great Americans Series with watches and goods inspired by Muhammad Ali here.


Above: Rakeem C. (in red) and Dorian H. (in blue) with Khali Sweeney in back.

How did the gym get started?

Khali Sweeney started the gym in 2007 a mile and half from where we currently are. He wanted to create a space he wished he had when he was a kid. The whole idea is that boxing is the hook to get the kids in the door. It’s the type of sport that attracts kids that remind Khali of himself — the bully or the kid that gets bullied. Boxing is also a safe cover. No one is going to make fun of you for going to a boxing gym, even if you know you’re going there to study.

How did you get involved with the gym?

In 2011, I went down there to workout, and I had no idea about the youth program. I was in grad school studying international children’s rights. I walked in the door and there had to have been 70 kids in there. They were all interacting with each other and the adults, which is rare for afterschool programs. They all had hope in their eyes. It was amazing!

I found Khali and he started telling me the story of the gym, and how he was preparing to close it down because he could no longer afford to keep the doors open. I introduced myself and asked how I could help. I started trying to figure out how to make the gym a 501c3 and get the community behind it.

How was it moving from a building with 4,000 square feet to a space with 27,500 square feet?

It took a lot of partners to make that move happen. Our new building is awesome, but it’s old and inefficient when it comes to energy. We are working with a foundation and a couple private donors to embark on an energy efficiency project for the building. We are partnering with Wayne State University to make the building as green as possible. Our dream is really to unplug from any paid energy source, but that will take a while.

What type of academic support do you offer to youth?

We have a waiting list of over 530 kids, which is heartbreaking. There’s no waiting list on the streets, so turning kids away is the worst thing that could possibly happen. At the same time the reason we have a 100% graduation rate and 98% of those kids go on to college, is because Khali knows every kid and their stories. Our tutors come up with an individual academic intervention plan for each student.

We’re currently trying to figure out how to add kids and keep the magic going. If you flood the program then it’s not successful, so it’s a balance.


Josue F. and Rakeem C.

What is a typical day like at the youth program?

Almost all of our kids come Monday-Friday, 4-7pm. We start picking them up from school around 2:30 p.m. Depending on the time of day you typically study first, some kids train first and study second, but every kid studies every day. We have a plan for each kid. Some study for 20 minutes, some for an hour, and some for two hours. It depends on the need and the kid. We provide food for them, and then they train. The training is really where the mentoring and life skills happen. We often have different professionals from different fields come in and do discussions or demonstrations. We do college readiness and visits, free drivers training, and even try and get them clothes or textbooks if they need them. When you’re really trying to create that family bond, that also means you have to step up where there’s possibly a gap.

The kids come from all over the city. We were personally picking up and dropping off the kids. About a year ago, General Motors gave us three vans. We got a grant to hire drivers, and we actually hired two of our moms who are former bus drivers. The program has always been free. The kids’ payment is doing community service.

What does the future of the program look like?

We have people from all over the world that call and are replicating this model already. The framework of it is genius, but it’s not rocket science. It’s the passion and the willingness to put 150% of your time and energy into it. That’s what makes it work. We are thinking about new revenue streams. Now that we have the bigger building, we’re looking to rent out the space for events when it’s not being used. Our goal is to have 150 students in the program by this time next year. That means we’ll need additional vans and drivers.

What’s it like working with Shinola?

To have people like Shinola see the realness here and connect with us is a real honor. Anybody that says, “You’re the real deal and we want to support you,” is just such an honor. More than anything it helps to build trust in the community. When people see that Shinola is supporting us and they’ve vetted us, they will hopefully feel like they can stand behind us too.

For more information, visit downtownyouthboxing.org.

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