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t about 3 p.m. on a bitter cold February day in Detroit, Carlo "Coach Khali" Sweeney, founder of the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program, is picking up a few of the gym's students from school as a last-minute request-although his boxing program doesn't start until 4 p.m.
"I get kids who call me and I get parents who call me all the time, 'Hey, could you pick my kid up early from school?'" Coach Khali says. "I'm on call 24 hours like a doctor."
Coach Khali, which is what he prefers to be called, has that strong of a relationship with the 65 students he teaches who come from all over Detroit and the metro area. Open for eight years now, Coach Khali's nonprofit gives kids 7-18 years old a place to learn boxing, but also to focus on their studies and have mentors.
"Right now, for them, it's hard," Coach Khali says of the kids. "So we've got to give them a safe place to go and the gym is a safe place to go. It's a family atmosphere here."
Coach Khali, a native Detroiter, grew up in a rough neighborhood. He was introduced to boxing as a way to stay out of trouble and had dreams of opening a gym himself someday.
"The youth right now, they need our support more than ever," he says. "It's very violent for the young kids out here-gangs and a lot of trouble."
The gym is about much more than boxing. In fact, Coach Khali doesn't think boxing is the most important part of what his gym offers.
"I don't care if one of these kids never throws a punch, wins a tournament -any of that," he notes. Although some of the gym's students have gone on to be champions in the sport, Coach Khali takes more pride in the fact that 100 percent of the students who have come through the gym in eight years have graduated from high school. Even more, 96 percent of those kids have gone to college while the other 4 percent are either employed full time or attended trade school.
"If you want to stop any type of problems that we have in the community, first you have to educate the community," he says.
At the gym, Coach Khali explains "it's always books before boxing." They have a room with computers where kids can come to do homework and study, and tutors from Teach For America come to help out. Forgotten Harvest provides the kids with food, which Coach Khali notes is "instrumental." The kids at the gym also are required to do community service, such as cleaning up neighborhoods or helping out at Forgotten Harvest.
Because of his own background growing up in a tough area, Coach Khali says he feels connected to the kids who struggle through similar situations.
"I've been in a house with no lights and gas. I've been in school with bad grades," he says. "Until somebody identifies those problems, you know, you can just go through life. People will say you're acting up, but you're not acting up, you're acting out, you want attention. Somebody needs to pay attention, so they know what's going on with you in your life."
And that's what Coach Khali and those who volunteer their time at the gym do for their students.
"I want to see kids go across that stage with that cap and gown-I want to keep seeing that happen. You know, every day I look forward to seeing these kids the next day," Coach Khali says. "I just want to see 'em and make sure they're breathing and they're alive."