people in boxing ring

Up2Us: Coach-mentors using power of sports to transform children’s lives

By Ellen Nason

On most evenings, Raul Alcala, 16, can be found at the Chicago Youth Boxing Club, exercising and training with his coach, Gabriel Navarro. Raul, a Junior Olympian, is a talented and dedicated athlete who takes his training seriously, but his main focus is not on winning competitions in the ring. It’s about staying fit, getting an education and gaining self-awareness, confidence and discipline. It’s about learning life skills that will help him make better decisions and become resilient so he can handle any punches that life may throw his way.

All around him boys and girls of varying ages are exercising, working on homework and learning lessons that could change the course of their lives, breaking a cycle of violence, fear and limited options.

They meet in the basement of LaVillita Community Church in Little Village, a Chicago neighborhood that has faced more than its share of challenges, including gang-related violence that has created long-term trauma and stress for those growing up there. The church and the boxing club offer a calming sanctuary from the day-to-day stress and help bring the community together.

Navarro, who grew up in the neighborhood, has always had an interest in sports, teaching and helping his community. A Humana Foundation grant awarded to Up2Us in Chicago gave Navarro a new opportunity to use his passion and skills to support the underserved youth in his community. Navarro became a participant in Coach Across America, an Up2Us national service program that immerses coach-mentors in intensive training in youth development, nutrition, trauma-sensitivity and education.

The Chicago Youth Boxing Club meets in the LaVillita Community Church. (Photo and story by Ellen Nason)
The Chicago Youth Boxing Club meets in the LaVillita Community Church. (Photo and story by Ellen Nason)

Up2Us, whose mission is to advance sports as a solution to the critical challenges facing America’s youth, has demonstrated success with the Coach Across America program. The majority of coaches, who work with local organizations within their own communities in a wide variety of sports, say that the training has helped them better connect sports to life skills that the youth they serve need to succeed and to build stronger relationships. Data also shows significant improvement in the physical activity levels of the participants in the youth programs led by coaches who received the training.

Navarro said the training has helped him demonstrate peaceful methods for resolving conflict, which is particularly important in urban areas that are violence-prone.

The training has been transformative and helped him change his thought processes, he said.

“The kids open up more to me,” said Navarro. “They are more engaged and understand that walking away is a better option than confrontation or giving in to peer pressure.”

He is also more aware of the need to create opportunities for new experiences and to emphasize the importance of inclusivity. He is passionate about pulling his community together and building stronger relationships is a priority.

“It’s family here,” said Navarro. “We want them hanging out here rather than in the street. We’re changing the game.”

“We don’t want to just be a boxing club,” said Victor Rodriguez, pastor at LaVillita Community Church, “We’re not just looking for the next (boxing) champion.” Instead, Rodriguez said, the focus is on academics, better nutrition, team building, youth development, serving the community and learning compassion. “It’s about the kids – and a better future.”

Rodriguez said he has seen growth in Navarro since he completed his Coach Across America training, and believes he is an even stronger role model for the boys and girls in the boxing club, who are showing their own growth with better decision-making and time management, asking for help when needed and seeing their own value as they set goals for the future.

The coaches in the basement of the Little Village Church are helping the kids get fit and develop boxing skills, but it is not about fighting for a victory in the ring. They are fighting for positive change and to end the violence. They are fighting for a better, healthier future. They are changing the game – and there are no losers.

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