Detroit Duo Runs Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program to Help Kids Thrive in and Outside the Ring

Founder Khali Sweeney and executive director Jessica Hauser give Detroit's youth a safe place to learn, study and find discipline through boxing

Episode 6 of AMERICAN DOERS, a new 12-part video series featuring original thinkers, innovators, craftspeople, risk-takers and artisans across the United States.

The Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program in Detroit, Michigan, has a simple motto: Books before boxing.

The organization, founded in 2007, gets kids off the streets but before they get to jump in the ring, homework comes first.

They also have math and reading camps, computer programming classes and a kitchen to make sure that no kid goes home hungry.

“If you were a kid in the hood, you tell all of your buddies you’re going to an after school program and I’m going to study, they’re going to laugh at you,” says founder Khali Sweeney. “But if you say I’m going to a boxing gym, ‘Oh, man, I want to go too.’ ”

The program is completely full and has around 700 on a waiting list.

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Khali Sweeney

“The hype is that you’ll be dead or in jail by 21. So for me, this is my obligation to tell these kids that there is another option,” says Sweeney, who also goes by Coach Khali. “You don’t have to become a criminal. You can always go back to school at any age.”

It’s a personal mission for him, but he doesn’t do it all on his own.

Executive director Jessica Hauser, who like Khali struggled with not being related to anyone in the households she grew up in, is just as involved.

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“When I look at a person like Jessica, she decided to volunteer in a community that’s not even her community,” says Sweeney, who is from Detroit. “I can’t speak for the rest of the world but inside of here, this is like the United Nations. We’re all working together for the common cause.”

That cause, Hauser says, is to be there for these children.

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“He knows how important it is to have that somebody in your life who is willing to step in and be your family, be your support,” she says about Sweeney.

The free after-school program has a 100 percent high school graduation rate. One graduate of the program had a 1.0 GPA before he came by the Downtown Boxing Gym. At the time of his high school graduation, that GPA was 3.7.

After their studies comes the fun part — boxing.

“It’s special to be able to work in a place where you really have faith in each other,” says Hauser.

Adds Sweeney, “When you get in here, you find a place to fit in and they become one whole unit, one team. Those lines and barriers just blur away.”

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