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Winning Life's Early Rounds

Boxing Pulls Youths in Tough NW Area Away From Gangs and Into the Gym

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2004; Page DZ08

Daniel Hernandez says he has no time for the Little Crazies.

The 16-year-old knows members of the Little Crazies, one of the Latino gangs that haunt Columbia Heights. But Hernandez has other ways to keep himself entertained. Such as beating up an honor student named Delante Milhouse.

Trainer Anthony Mark Clayton, left, offers his expertise to Delante Milhouse, 15, at Keely's District Boxing and Youth Center. The center runs one of several new programs receiving anti-gang funds from the District. (Marvin Joseph - The Washington Post)

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The smackdown is occurring on a hot summer day at Keely's District Boxing and Youth Center, in one of several new programs receiving anti-gang funds from the city government. Since Hernandez discovered the noisy, sweat-drenched gym in July, he has been training here every day.

"I just thought if I came here, I wouldn't be wasting my time on the streets," said the teenager, before stepping into the ring with Milhouse.

A year ago, the city was stunned by an outburst of violence between Latino gangs in Northwest. Over a period of weeks, the feuds claimed the lives of five people, shot as they played cards, rode bikes or walked down bustling major avenues.

The city government responded with a $400,000 grant for new programs to combat gang violence in the area, and a new police anti-gang force focused on neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights and Petworth. Officials and community groups say the new efforts are bearing fruit.

"What we're doing here is addressing the root causes a little bit better. That's what all of this is about, so we don't have to put people in handcuffs -- so we can give people, through training or employment or recreation, an opportunity to excel," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D), who pressed for the extra funds to combat the gang activity that flared in his district, Ward 1.

No one believes the gangs have disappeared from Columbia Heights and nearby neighborhoods populated heavily by Hispanic immigrants. The factors that motivate kids to join gangs -- absentee parents, lack of opportunity, a sense of isolation -- still persist. And some activists feel the government hasn't done enough. But the new efforts to avert gang violence seem to be having an effect, according to officials and activists.

One major improvement they cite is increased communication between police and community groups about events that could detonate violence.

A recent example: Two Latino gang members got out of jail and returned to the Columbia Heights area. "Immediately we had to get together the [community] groups and just watch" to spot any signs that the young men might be causing trouble, said Gustavo Velazquez, director of the Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs.

Meanwhile, the new funding is producing more services, including outreach workers who circulate through the neighborhood, chatting with kids, and programs to educate parents about gangs.

Michael Leon, of the Latin American Youth Center, works in a new program focusing on youths in gangs or close to them. His team closely monitors about three dozen young people, steering them into jobs, counseling or classes, visiting their schools, keeping in touch with their parents.

"We're not preaching, 'Get out of a gang.' We're preaching, 'Get on with your life,' " said Leon, a former probation officer in Prince George's County. The approach, he said, is more effective than pressuring a teenager to cut off ties with his friends. Instead, the team tries to offer options, such as a job, that will allow him to gradually move away from his old group.

"As long as we support a kid doing all these positive things, eventually he'll find his own way out," said Leon.

Other programs aim to keep kids from joining gangs in the first place. At Keely's boxing gym, owner Keely Thompson hopes the lure of the ring will replace the lure of the streets.

Thompson, a well-known D.C. boxer who fought professionally as a lightweight in the late '80s and early '90s, recently opened his center in the cavernous basement of a church on Columbia Road. Assisted by a $40,000 grant from the anti-gang program, he offers free instruction to teens from the area.

On a recent afternoon, his gym was filled with young men and women doing calisthenics, shadowboxing and smacking punching bags. Thompson was a blur of motion, lacing up the gloves of his young athletes, squirting water into their mouths, shouting instructions. Over and over, he bellowed encouragement to the boxers.

"Come on, champ! You're beautiful, baby!" he yelled as teens ran laps around the gym.

His program, he emphasized in an interview, isn't just about turning kids into fighters. They are required to sit through a nutrition class; they have to work hard; they start each day's session with a group prayer. "We teach discipline, obedience. We teach respect," he said.

Daniel Hernandez, the son of a Nicaraguan-born factory worker, came to Thompson's program out of curiosity, but he quickly became hooked. He had always liked play-boxing with his younger brother at home, but he never imagined he'd try the real thing.

"I was scared people would hit me in the face, or I'd drop and be embarrassed," he admitted. But his brother discovered Keely's and persuaded him to give it a try.

Now Hernandez promotes the gym to his friends, even the ones in gangs.

"I keep trying to get them to get out, 'cause they'll end up in problems or jail. I keep telling them to come to this program," he said.

Luis Garrido is another convert. The 16-year-old, who lives downtown, said he used to hang out on the streets because he had nothing better to do. But now he spends hours at the boxing gym, pounding a punching bag until he is glistening with sweat.

"I used to know people from gangs. I just stopped going and talking to them since I started" at the gym, said Garrido. The program has even inspired him to give up junk food, to slim his stocky build, he said.

The boxing center, in the basement of the Casa del Pueblo United Methodist Church at 1459 Columbia Rd., is operating on a shoestring. The D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation donated the boxing ring and equipment. Thompson's entourage from his pro boxing days helps out with volunteer coaching. He is trying to get more grants and donations, but meanwhile nearly everyone on the staff holds a job on the side.

Thompson said he opened the gym with the aid of Graham, who helped him find the funding and the space. Thompson brings the heart. He knows how boxing can change the life of a young man growing up in the District.

"It kept me off the streets," he said. "When I came to the gym and trained, I was too tired to do something else."

He recalled that he was dumbstruck when he heard about the space for rent in the church basement: It was the same place where he had trained years ago. It was known then as Latin Connection.

"This is my home. I love it," he said.

Thompson has far more plans than money. He wants to organize a boxing tournament, take the young athletes to Six Flags, find ways to get them to church. "These kids want something out of life," he explained.

He turned and watched a youth finish a lap -- another teenager from a tough neighborhood. Thompson saw something more.

"Come on, champ!" he yelled.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company