The overwhelming noise of multiple conversations, the smell of a gym and the sharp slapping of jump ropes on hard concrete greet you when you walk up the back steps to the Crown Boxing Club gym in Lansing Michigan.
Inside are boxing rings, treadmills, speed bags and as many as 25 kids. The owner of the establishment, Ali “Coach” Easley, answers the question of a volunteer, then ruffles the head of one of the younger kids. Another youngster clamors for coach’s attention, and he bursts into a big smile and laugh when he succeeds.
Walking through the gym to his office a loud beep goes off and all the kids on the gym floor drop what they’re doing and start doing push-ups, sit-ups or crunches.
Coach Easley on HAWK
Easley’s program is called HAWK, which is an acronym for the Help A Willing Kid Foundation, a non-profit that works with underprivileged and impoverished youth in the greater Lansing community.
“We have about 360 kids a year that we assist and on any given day we have anywhere between 15 and 45 kids,” said Easley. “Our youth program generally starts about 3 o’clock and goes till about 8 o’clock at night.”
It’s easy to see how involved he is with the kids and how the extensive program can become a big part of these kids lives.
“In that time span we have meal programs set up for the kids come down and eat and then they get some assistance with tutoring and things like that,” said Easley. “We have a hygiene program, you know, for them to take showers or get their clothes laundered.”
Concerning parental involvement, Easley said, “Very few parents probably even know that their kids are here. I would probably say 80% of the parents are not involved and they’re somewhat removed from the situation…”
Located at 1010 Ballard St., the gym is a home to some of these kids. Beyond having a safe place to be after school, the program takes kids to events.
“Generally what I like to do is, if we have an event coming up, I sometimes will take kids just to show them what it’s like, a new kid, and then they kind of get hooked, you know, and want to keep coming to the gym for that opportunity to maybe travel again,” said Easley.
The program is staffed by three main volunteers: Easley, Trisha Nylon and Mosses Manuel. They run the business side of the organization; writing grants, finding donations and helping the kids get home at night.
(Clip of HAWK students running through a boxing training circuit)
The biggest program HAWK offers is boxing, “which has grown so large its kind of taken on its own identity,” Easley said.
Manuel is out in the gym watching the kids run through the boxing circuit intently. “Believe it or not, I used to coach Easley,” Manuel said, not taking his eyes of the kids. “I teach boxing to both kids from HAWK and professionals that come to Crown Boxing.”
As the kids leave the gym floor and hit the boxing mats to run laps, Manual said, “With the younger kids [versus the professionals] I guess you could say that they struggle with discipline. I teach a kid how to be courteous and respectful.”
When asked about the changes the program instills, Manuel said, “It’s night and day. When you see a kid who is disciplined and respectful, you don’t mind helping them.”
The beep goes off again, and the kids drop to the floor.
When asked about forming personal attachments to the kids, Manuel said, “That’s the problem with the whole thing, [HAWK] you get attached to the kids, then all of a sudden they quit coming around, or they get older or end up in jail and those are always sad, they picked the wrong path in life.”
The back area, where the kids can study, is silent compared to the chaotic sounds of the gym.
Michigan State University student Allie Bunch is one of the volunteer tutors. “I usually go to HAWK four or five times a week,” she said. “I tutor the kids and hang out with them in the evening, and maybe help out coach with some cooking or cleaning before I drive the kids home.”
At a time when the terms “high school dropout” has more mentions that ever, acccording Google books Ngram viewer, Easley stresses the importance of doing well in school. “We just have rules [to travel] I mean everybody has to have their grades in line.”
“I think this program is helping the kids there not just get better grades on their homework, but it also fosters a more genuine interest in academics, which is great to see,” Bunch said. “I love that the students regularly ask me to bring in or write up extra work for them to do, like spelling words or math problems.”
“It’s more than just after-school-care and it’s more than just boxing lessons. For the kids who are there every single day, it’s almost like a second home, and I think that makes the foundation really invaluable to the community,” Bunch said.
The program doesn’t end at 8 p.m. when the boxing lessons are over, or even after high school when a student is no longer ‘of age.” It’s a program that can foster a lifelong home.
“A lot of the kids we have, you know, they usually start around 6-years-old up to about 16 and then if they stay with the program, a lot of them stay and get involved because they give back,” Easley said.
The program has many people working with different aspects of it that all come together for the same goal. “Any kid that stays with the program and sees it through become good citizens, they either go into the military, go to college or get a good job,” Manuel said. “There is this one kid, I just saw him a couple of weeks ago, who told me he graduated from Michigan State University and just got his first job offer making $65,000 a year.”
The program also has events that those who have gone through it can come back to. “We just had a get-together. We had about five or six of the guys come back and help out and pitch in,” said Manuel. “So you can see the benefits of how we impact a kids life, how they grow up and when they become successful they always come back and say thanks, that’s what it’s all about.”