Fighting to keep kids off the streets

Descending into an unkempt basement in the heart of South Central Los Angeles, an ex-fighter sweeps an inch of dust off a worn-out boxing ring. For almost 10 years it lay neglected along with a dozen heavy punching bags.

That was until last Monday.

The room was grimy. Discolored paint peeled off the walls, and wooden planks blocked the sunlight from breaking through the shattered windows, but Alvaro Soto finally found the gym he was looking for.

Soto and Jesus Avila, both trainers, opened up the boxing gym to motivate youngsters in the community to keep their punches in the ring and off the streets.

A new makeshift sign currently hangs below the vandalized entrance reading “Methodist Boxing School,” and a group of adolescents eagerly distributes yellow fliers to promote the new gym.

The basement is now filled with sounds of grunting and thumping, battling the blast of pop music and ringing bells.

One boy furiously jabs at his trainer’s punching pad, rapidly swinging one arm after the other, while shuffling back and forth on the podium; another skips till his sweat trickles down his neck and soaks his oversized gray sweater.

Richard Garcia, a muscular 15-year-old, sat down to take his gloves off after hours of striking heavy blows and dodging punches. Wearing a tattered beanie hat with his hands still wrapped in tape, Garcia said he’s proud of himself for being here.

“I was really messing up in school and I was into all that drug stuff,” Garcia admitted.

Soto pointed to Garcia as one of the boys he found hanging around at the street corner. Garcia started training a week ago but now says his dream is to become a professional boxer and make money.

imageSoto, 38, remembers when he used to waste time in parks with his friends; a few of them joined, but he avoided their path because of the boxing gym.

“I’ve seen a couple of kids, you know, hanging around in the streets, and I started remembering those days, and then I just thought that was a pretty good idea to keep those kids away from the street, and then have them find some discipline in boxing,” said Soto.

Soto retired from professional fighting to have his own family but still trains boxers. He’s a skilled carpenter on the side.

Avila, a 29-year-old aerospace machinist, had a similar story. He grew up in Compton and started boxing at 8 years old.

Gripping tight to a heavyweight bag as a tireless boy gave his best hit, Avila described how some of his friends joined gangs after his gym closed down. Three of them were killed. Avila still wonders whether keeping the gym opened could have saved their lives.

Avila immediately agreed to join the project when Soto approached him – it was a chance for him to help kids similar to the friends he grew up with. Two weeks later, the gym opened.

The fitness center is open to boys and girls of all ages, and there are boxing lessons every weekday. For either $15 a week or $50 a month, the trainers hope to attract members who can’t afford a high-priced gym. They also pledge to offer an opportunity for those unable to pay the minimal amount.

imageIn its first week, the center had over seven members sweating every evening. But the hard work isn’t going to stop in the gym.
“If they’re OK here and they don’t do good in school I got to talk to their parents, and then they cannot come ‘til I find that they got good grades, and then they’re welcome back,” Soto explained.

Soto hopes that bringing in kids off the street to box will help discipline them from their wayward lives.

“I already got a couple of kids they used to be hanging around in the streets, they’re not there no more. They’re here,” Soto said.

Beria Figueroa brought her son to the gym after seeing the sign outside. She said she’s been looking for a boxing class for her son for a while. She says there’s nothing else in the community.

“I’ve being wanted to put my son in a place like that so he can stay out of trouble,” said Figueroa.

Girls need to learn how to defend themselves too, noted 11-year-old Andrea Soto, the eldest of Alvaro Soto’s three daughters.

Dressed in a purple shirt with a matching purple headband, Andrea looked out of place as she quietly sat in the corner of the gym trying to finish her studies amid the loud noises and interruptions. She’s been helping her father by passing out flyers and volunteering at the gym.

Andrea says in middle school she had to defend herself many times on her own.

“At school all you see is fights and stuff and at least if you know how to box you learn how to block,” Andrea explained. “If someone asks you, ‘oh I’m going to fight you’ and this and that, you know how to walk away, and if they start you know how to block.”

Over the next week, Soto and Avila plan to repaint the gym and fix the bathroom. They expect more people to join, and hope to build another ring as the membership increases.

“I hope the next step is looking for a tournament and boxing shows,” said Soto. “I got to wait for them to get ready to fight so I can let them know that they can get a trophy for being number one. I want to put it in their brains that they can go to the Olympics.”