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Bright Ideas

Carl Kelly & the Grand Rapids Youth Boxing Foundation

Every Wednesday night, approximately 35 children and young adults from the surrounding schools and neighborhoods gather with the staff and volunteers of the MLK Mentoring and Boxing Program to train in the sport. But talk to any member of the staff, and you’ll hear that there is much more to the program than athletics.
In the middle of Martin Luther King Jr. Park, on the East side of Grand Rapids, is a small building with a tiny parking lot: the MLK Boxing Center. Every Wednesday night, approximately 35 children and young adults from the surrounding schools and neighborhoods gather with the staff and volunteers of the MLK Mentoring and Boxing Program to train in the sport. But talk to any member of the staff, and you’ll hear that there is much more to the program than athletics.
“We’re in the inner city,” the program’s executive director, Carl Kelly, says. “Oftentimes, unemployment is the highest in the inner city. There are a number of parents who have spent time incarcerated or are currently incarcerated. It’s a way for us to assist those parents who have a difficult role to tread, and act as a support system for their children.”
The program is run by the nonprofit Grand Rapids Youth Boxing Foundation, and kept in operation mostly by independent donors and fundraisers. Even the Boxing Center itself is rented from the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department for one dollar a year.

It’s money well spent, according to Kelly, who insists that by getting the children into shape and allowing them the opportunity to compete in youth boxing competitions such as The Golden Gloves and The Silver Gloves, the program helps them build skills they need, not only to effectively box, but also to succeed elsewhere in life.

“It takes a tremendous amount of effort to get into boxing condition,” Kelly says, “just to get in the ring and go three rounds. If these kids can succeed at boxing, they can take that same sense of discipline and apply it to anything else in life. School. Homework. Whatever. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, and it takes discipline to do that.”

Previously Kelly, a retired high school teacher and community organizer with a 17-year background of employment at Herman Miller, sat on the board of directors at the YBA. But in 2010, only two months after becoming part of the Foundation, Kelly was asked to step down. It wasn’t because of lackluster performance – instead, the rest of the board wanted to make him executive director of the MLK Boxing and Mentoring Program.

“I thought I was done for good, but they pulled me out of retirement and back into work,” Kelly says. “But I’m really pleased that I’ve been able to help out – and they’ve been really pleased with the way the program is being run.”
But the boxing program is only half of what Kelly and his staff do with the program. Every Wednesday before training begins, they also run a mentoring program funded by a grant from the National Police Athletic League.
“It gives the students someone to make contact with once a week for an hour,” Kelly says. “Just to check up on them and see how they’re doing. They’ll spend time either [at the Boxing Center] playing chess, checkers or Scrabble, or whatever they want to play. Or we’ll all go on field trips as a group, or we’ll have group activities.”

Ideally, the program would operate much like the Big Brother, Big Sister program in which an individual child is paired with an individual volunteer or staff member with mentoring training. But according to Kelly, the high volume of kids and the lack of mentors means often pairing four or five children with one volunteer. Regardless, they make the best with what they have. Kelly explained that he’s constantly arranging educational events for the children, such as tours around Grand Valley State University or a juicing demonstration, in which the children are allowed to make drinks out of fruits and vegetables.
Kelly also adds that he has hopes to one day expand the organization with more sports and activities, because while he is passionate about the Boxing Program, he also acknowledges that it is more importantly a vehicle to provide opportunities to children who may not have previously had them.

“What we’re focused on is young people having a decent chance in life,” Kelly says. “This provides an opportunity for kids to be off the street between those crucial hours of four o’clock in the afternoon to eight o’clock at night. Those are the hours when kids tend to get into trouble. That’s when teenage girls tend to get pregnant. That’s when teenage boys tend to get into trouble in the streets with drugs and any other kind of nefarious activity. This is a safe haven. They can come here and be totally safe from the streets. Afterwards, they’re so tired they’re ready to go home, eat, do homework and go to bed. If you think about it, we have 35 kids who might be elsewhere, who are instead here and working. I think that’s invaluable.”

Volunteers interested in working with the MLK Mentoring and Boxing Program, donors, or parents interested in enlisting their children can visit the Boxing Center on Wednesdays between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. or contact Kelly directly at     
[email protected].

Kevin VanAntwerpen is a contributing writer for Rapid Growth Media and REVUE magazine. He also takes the role of primary lyricist and bass player in the West Michigan pop-rock band Chasing the Sky. Additionally, his short stories and poems have been printed in numerous independent magazines and literary journals. He currently attends Grand Valley State University.
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