Discuss as:

At Detroit's Downtown Boxing Gym, kids find athletic and academic success

Thanks to generous donations, the Downtown Boxing Gym is expanding, giving more kids an outlet to learn -- and become stronger. NBC's Chelsea Clinton reports.

By Craig Stanley, NBC News

DETROIT, Mich. -- On a cold December day in East Detroit, a dozen kids form a human assembly line stretching across the parking lot of the Downtown Boxing Gym.

With strong arms, the kids grab and push boxes of food from the delivery truck.

"The kids don't go without a meal," Coach Khali Sweeney told NBC News. "Forgotten Harvest, the local food bank, they'll bring food here for 'em, so we have food for the kids to eat healthy.”

According to a 2010 report, more than half of the city's households with children under 18 receive food assistance from the state. 

But that food is just one of the reasons the kids depend on this gym, which is the only building left standing on its city block.

To learn more about the Downtown Boxing Gym, please click here to visit their website. 

It is surrounded by a handful of vacant lots and remnants of abandoned buildings, where the kids sometimes run laps at night.

"It's not, like, really safe for us to go out there and train," 19-year-old boxer Anthony Flagg Jr. said.  "But we do it anyway. They say boxing, you're risking your life."

For these kids, there are risks both in and out of the ring.

Across train tracks, less than a mile away from the gym, there's a scene of a different kind: a new Whole Foods grocery-- a sign of new life for the struggling city.

"I appreciate and applaud all the efforts goin' into [...] buildin' the city," Sweeney said. "But the residents themselves, they're not gonna see that for a long time, and they're still suffering. So places like this is a good place for kids to go. "

We first profiled the Downtown Boxing Gym back in March of 2013. The gym, a grassroots effort to keep kids off the streets, had no heat, and was beyond capacity. Since the story aired, the gym has received an outpouring of support from their community and from viewers across the nation.

"A lot of doors opened up for us," Sweeney said. "There was a lot of people working behind the scenes, but a lot more people reached out to us."

Sweeney, who still goes to pick up students for practice, now uses donated Zipcars to get around the city. Rides are not limited to and from the gym; the students’ parents can call for help as necessary.

“They are my family, all of 'em,” Sweeney said. “I wouldn't drive across the planet, you know, if they wasn't.”

Good grades and graduation are the priority at the Downtown Boxing Gym in Detroit, Mich.

Inside of the gym, a new ring stands, complete with a life-sized wall decal of Sweeney and the boxers. A few feet away from the ring, the tutoring area boasts new furniture, fresh paint, and updated computers.

Teach for America Detroit started a partnership with the gym, assigning seven teachers to work alongside the gym’s pre-existing tutors to help strengthen the gym's academic program.

"Seeing kids using boxing to give them more confidence and focus on their self-esteem, I think education can be used the same way," Teach For America Detroit community coordinator Lauren Coleman said. "Our goal is to provide students with at least an hour a day [of] tutoring and prep, and also ... college and career readiness."

Another major change is on the horizon: The gym has raised more than $175,000 in donations toward a new facility that Sweeney hopes will be able to accommodate some of the gym's more than 150 kids that remain on the waiting list.

"That's one of the things we can't afford to do, just keep kids waitin' around," Sweeney said. "If they're just sitting around, I mean, nobody's helping them at that point, you know?"

Today, that help also comes in the form of mentoring and improved self-esteem.

"I think I'm turning into a role model,” Flagg said. “It makes me feel good on the inside, that kids be askin' me for help with their homework and for advice. I never thought I'd be givin’ anybody advice.”

“You know, boxing is a male-dominated thing,” said boxer Christal Berry, 15. “I think it gives me a lot of power, because I feel really good, I feel strong.”

Parent club leader Sheba McKinney, whose daughter and son visit DBG every weekday, said the gym gives her peace of mind.

"It gives [the kids] an outlet of something to do, so they're not just out in the streets," she said. "This gives them something to work hard for."

Sweeney and the kids have also found appreciation and recognition within their community. The Detroit Pistons recently invited every kid and volunteer to a basketball game, after which they received a monetary donation from the Meijer store for winter coats.

Despite the positive changes over the past year for the gym, Sweeney says there’s much more to be done—and a much larger need to fill.

“Right now, the kids need it more than ever,” Sweeney said. “Detroit is still a rough place, you know. With all the progress that we're makin’, we can't forget the fact that a lot of people are still suffering.”

Jessica Hauser, the gym’s executive director, believes the gym’s growth and progress thus far is proving to be a good lesson for the boxers.

“It's okay to struggle,” she said. “It’s okay as long as you're working towards your dream and that you can make it happen ... And I think that's what the [new gym] will show them.  That hard work does pay off."