The Harvard Elementary seventh-grader could have spent this Friday evening hanging out with friends, but she chose to spend it working out in the Believe Center boxing gym.
“To keep me busy, to keep me exercising, to stay in shape,” she said of her decision to hit the gym. “I like the sport—a lot of moving around.”
After all, she’s working off some nervous energy, as she anxiously anticipates her competitive debut in the ring March 1. Her first boxing competition will be a measuring stick as she prepares for more serious bouts which will start in September. Sparring with teammates will only get her so far.
So Christina closed her eyes and visualized victory. “Me winning and having a fun time doing it” is how she described what she saw. The young Latina has only been boxing for three months, but she already has her sights set on Golden Gloves someday. She also has motivated her younger brother to try the sport. Both siblings have found new energy and enthusiasm.
“I’m not as tired. Normally I’ll go home and be lazy and just go to sleep,” she said. “I’ve lost some weight and drink a lot of water. I used to not do sports. Since I’ve done boxing, I drink a lot of water and I’m healthier. I don’t eat a lot at home.”
But Christina also has seen her self-confidence grow as she learns to box.
“I used to be shy. This has made me not that shy. I talk more,” she said.
Christina would like to see more of her teenage friends and neighbors come to the center and try the sport.
“It’s a good thing to keep you from going out on the streets, messing up. It’s good exercise and keeps you busy with life,” she explained.
At an age when most teenage girls are into makeup, clothes, and boys, Christina is keeping her focus. But there’s a time and a place for the rest.
“I can still be girlie-girl,” she said.
Coaching—with a purpose
“(I see) a lot of potential. Some of these kids really want to do it,” said volunteer coach Saúl Urbina, 24. “We get some jokers. I try to run them off, but they won’t go. (That) makes it even better.”
Urbina stated he gets “much more” out of coaching the kids than they do. He and his brothers had the benefit of a boxing gym in his backyard growing up.
“Boxing’s been my whole life. As a kid, I wanted to do it so bad,” he explained. “As I got older, I wasn’t in the physical peak for it. So I’ve turned it toward the kids and still get the same rush from it.”
Urbina works in landscaping by day. But two hours each evening, five days a week, he turns his attention toward kids who are growing up in the Old South End like he did.
“Most of them are in behavioral school. Some of them come here and act tough. But they get to doing the workout, it ain’t the same,” he explained with a grin, knowing that when the kids get in the boxing ring, they find out just how tough, or not, they really are. “Some of them stay. Some of them go. But a lot of them end up staying.”
While Urbina put kids through workout drills on one side of the Believe Center, volunteers were putting away chairs from a funeral reception held earlier in the day. The family had buried a young man “who had given a ride to another” to East Toledo, according to center director Tonya Durán, shot because he had “been in the wrong place.”
Urbina knows he may be saving some other young lives through boxing.
“I’m doing it for the kids now. I was done years ago,” he said with a laugh. “It’s pulling them out of the streets. They don’t have to follow other people. Bring them here; show them how to be leaders—instead of following people, rather have them be leaders.”
Urbina called it a simple formula that the Believe Center follows for all of its sports programs, whether it’s baseball, basketball, soccer, or football. Keep kids busy.
“Just structure in their life and they get to go places,” he said. “We don’t just stay in Toledo. We go to different tournaments. We’ve got a school program, so they know they have to keep their grades up at all times if they want to go places. It just gives them more out of life with just a little bit of structure—because some of them don’t even have dads.”
Urbina also knows boxing saved his life as a youth.
“I’d probably be in jail or something like that or into something I shouldn’t,” he admitted. “Boxing put a little bit of structure into my life, respecting people and stuff like that. Learning how to win and lose. You can’t always win, you know. I had four brothers and we all did it—and none of us ended up in jail.”
Now Urbina is trying to pass down to a new generation what he learned as a kid—what kept his family together.
“I just have a passion for it,” he said. “My brothers did it. My dad had champions before. So I guess it’s just in the bloodlines with us. Even my grandpa did the fighting.”
At the Believe Center, the young boxers are forced to focus. Tutors help them with homework. There’s also a rule—cell phones and computers are off limits while completing a two-hour daily workout and training.
“A lot of kids just want to be doing games or on the phone all day,” he said. “Around here, they know if they’re doing boxing from 5 to 7, they can’t answer.”
“We have a no TV, no Internet zone here, because they can do that at home,” said Ms. Durán, laughing. “When they’re here, they concentrate on the games, their ability, and whatever activity they’re doing here—not phones. They ask me for the wireless code, but I tell them I don’t know it.”
To some degree, the boxing program even fights a childhood obesity problem.
“A lot of them came here as big kids. Now they see themselves doing pull-ups when they couldn’t before,” he said with a smile. “A couple weeks, three weeks into it, they realize they can do a couple. Just got to keep doing it. Makes them stronger.”
While many people may view boxing as an individual sport, Urbina stresses kids are learning a lot of teamwork along the way.
“Not when you’re in the gym. When you go out in combat, yes, it’s you and him. But in the gym, they push each other,” he explained. “You spar, work the bag, doing pushups. We do drills, see who’s the best, keep them competitive. We stay on each other in the gym. Even the kids stay on me when I work out in the gym. They try to push me. In the ring, it may be individual—but you still have each other, cheering each other.”
The youngest boxer is eight years old. But Urbina is willing to work with kids as young as seven to see if they like the sport.
“Their faces light up. It’s priceless when they win, because they didn’t think they’d be doing this. Some of them are pretty tough,” he said.
Urbina has every confidence he has some future Golden Gloves winners in the gym.
“Oh yeah, for sure—we just have to get them moving faster,” he said. “We’ve got a couple of them that are coming around really well.”
Still a struggle
Ms. Durán stated the boxing program has worked with 85 kids at one time or another—and more than half have become regulars. City recreation officials helped the center secure a boxing ring once programs expanded to additional space that became available.
“We’ve been missing this piece in the Old South End,” she said. “Before, kids would have to go to the north end or east for the boxing program. My goal is to keep sports alive and boxing’s the only thing we didn’t do.”
The Believe Center now hosts dance classes and a tennis program in addition to its initial sports since it opened nearly two years ago. According to Durán, kids walk through the front doors more than 1,100 times each week for various programs.
“People still don’t know who we are. We have no funding for our boxing program,” she lamented. The center continues to run entirely with volunteers. Even the boxing program’s tutoring sessions are run by retired schoolteacher Maria Martinez and a volunteer helper. Somehow, someone always manages to answer a call for help in the neighborhood.
“We still need equipment—and money,” said Ms. Durán. “We have the kids. The kids come faithfully. Even in the super, super cold, the kids still came and they like being here. It’s a safe place, yes.”
The center also tries to continue to make sure kids who come to its sports programs don’t go home hungry—because outside of school, it may be the only meal they’ll see.
“We can’t give them much. Sometimes it’s just crackers and cheese, a bowl of soup, or grilled-cheese,” said Ms. Durán. “Today my sister made turkey sandwiches. Every day we try to give them a little something in their stomach.”
Nearly two years later, Ms. Durán still sticks to the core mission of the Believe Center.
“We believe we’ve made a difference in every child’s life,” she said. “We do. When they come in, they hold the doors open for other people. They’re really respectful and it’s really nice. Even parents tell us when they get home, they’re so tired they take a shower and go to sleep—the kids don’t act up.”
But Ms. Durán also stated the Believe Center helps kids believe in themselves, “to be happy for what they have,” as she put it.
“We may not have a lot, but we’re happy with what we have. We teach them that,” she explained. “Respect yourselves. Respect others. Live a happy life.”
Anyone interested in donating or signing up their kids for sports programs can contact the Believe Center at 419-244-6097 or [email protected].