Every weekday after school lets out in Chicago’s North Lawndale area, Tyreek Jamison heads straight to a church in the nearby Little Village neighborhood.
But the high school senior does not go to La Villita Community Church on the city’s southwest side to pray.
Jamison goes there to fight.
Jamison is a boxer. The 19 year old already has a few fights under his belt and high hopes of becoming a champion.
“I wanna get that [World Boxing Council] title belt,” Jamison said.
To achieve that dream, for the past two years Jamison has been stepping into the ring of the Chicago Youth Boxing Club that works out in the basement of the church at 2300 South Millard Street.
“I’m here every day and every day it’s a good workout,” Jamison said. “I heard about it from the Power Gloves. It’s an event they have every year. That’s how I heard about the gym and [the coach] is a pretty good person. [The coaches] really look out and they really, really care for their fighters.”
Unlike most fighters at the club, Jamison is not from the Little Village neighborhood. He lives in the suburb of Bellwood and attends high school at Community Christian Alternative Academy in North Lawndale.
But Jamison said he can still see how the club helps the neighborhood.
“It just takes kids [off] the streets and brings them into something positive and then they can do something positive with their life and actually become something,” Jamison said.
That’s the whole mission of the nonprofit club that uses boxing as a platform to build healthy life skills and as an alternative to drug and gang activity, according to Raul Gonzales, 65, a senior trainer who grew up in Little Village.
“As long as you got them in the gym, you keep [kids] away from problems and trouble and getting shot in the streets,” said Gonzales, who works at the University of Illinois at Chicago as a Program Service Specialist in a violence prevention role, and has been coaching part-time at the club since 2008.
Gonzales was an amateur fighter from 1974 to 1982 then switched to coaching, which quickly became his passion.
“I know from experience, especially from boxing… it gives you that confidence so you don’t have to go out there and prove to nobody that you can fight because you know how to handle yourself,” Gonzales said.
This is especially key in the Little Village neighborhood, where Gonzales said it’s important to give these kids a “safe haven.”
Gonzales added that the church’s pastor and former executive director of the club, Victor Rodriguez, occasionally manages to get tickets for the students to go to baseball or basketball games.
“We do other activities besides just boxing,” said Gonzales. “We always try to make sure that they stay out of trouble and get involved with other programs that [we] have here.”
Experience is not required and the club is also open to adults for a $30 monthly fee. That fee is sliced in half for students who make up most of the gym’s membership. The gym is open from 3 pm until 9 pm so they can train after school.
Some even stay on after they graduate. Program Director Ana Patricia Juarez, a 22-year-old native of the Little Village neighborhood and member of the church, started working at the club as a volunteer when she was a teenager.
While in high school, Juarez, who has a talent for writing, participated in an internship program at Columbia College and then got a job as a grant writer at the boxing club.
“That’s how I ended up here,” said Juarez. “One of the most important things about working in a nonprofit environment is to cater to the community that is around you. Boxing has a lot of cultural relevance to the Latino community.
“So using boxing as a platform for engaging at-risk youth is one of the most important things that I saw… Boxing is one of those things where a lot of dads will come. This is actually one of those things that actually matters to the community.”
Juarez said the staff and boxing students seem equally committed to the training.
“[Kids feel] like this place [is] family, like this [is] their second home,” Juarez said. “We recognize that a lot of kids are not going to become famous boxers but every kid can learn work ethic, discipline, goal orientation, time management, all of these things are essential to boxing… more than anything, they’re life lessons.”
Juarez also said that many children in the neighborhood suffer from PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, as a result of losing family members or friends to violence.
“They have all this angry energy and we’re transforming that energy into positive energy,” Juarez said.
In addition, the community faces the challenges that come from having many undocumented residents, according to Miguel Saucedo, the club’s newly appointed acting executive director.
“Our community is about one third undocumented so we deal with a lot of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Dream Act [issues],” said Saucedo, 31, who has worked with the club for four years and is one of only four employees.
However, there are “a ton of volunteers” assisting with everything from administration to coaching. And if Saucedo has anything to say about it, soon there will be even more people helping. He said that he would like to create a volunteer center for service learning and community service hours.
Saucedo has big plans for what he described as a “jewel” of a “hidden resource located in a basement of a church.” He would like to expand the club to make it more financially stable and start an academic support center so that students can excel academically, and become more “college-orientated” and prepared for careers.
Saucedo sees the club as a “complement to the local schools.” Juarez views it as a healing force for the community.
“Love is transformative (and) unconditional love can heal a multitude of wrongs in the world,” Juarez said. “What I get out of the [job] is the satisfaction of knowing that the neighborhood can be transformed.”