'Books before boxing' credo helps trainer change lives

Story highlights

  • Khali Sweeney grew up in a rough part of Detroit with little guidance
  • After escaping street life, he founded a boxing gym to help others do the same
  • About 100 children per week train, plus receive tutoring and meals there
Khali Sweeney has been selected as a 2017 Top 10 CNN Hero. Voting is now underway to select the Hero of the Year, to be revealed during 'CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute,' airing live, Sunday, Dec. 17 at 8 p.m. ET.

Detroit (CNN)Growing up in Detroit was not easy for Khali Sweeney.

When he was just 6 weeks old, his parents gave him away to a woman in the neighborhood.
CNN Hero Khali Sweeney
"That put a chip on my shoulder," Sweeney said. "So, I was always getting in trouble; I was always fighting. ... She raised me the best she could, but I was always looking for a family."
    Sweeney ended up finding it in the wrong group.
    "People on the streets will be your family," he said, "but at a cost."
    Ultimately, Sweeney dropped out of high school. He had no job, no education and nowhere to live.
    Yet, he was able to turn his life around, realizing it would have been different had someone kept him on track as a child. He wanted to help save other young people from the same path.
    Sweeney had fallen in love with boxing when he was young and learned all he could. When he realized he wanted to help kids in his neighborhood, he knew it was one way he could reach them. So, he started by teaching a few kids in a nearby park.
    In 2007, Sweeney started the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program. Five days a week, around 100 children are picked up from school and brought to his gym.
    Boxing, Sweeney says, "teaches you to be focused." He and his coaches become mentors, folding in lessons about accountability, sportsmanship and perseverance.
    The gym also has a tutoring center. Sweeney considers that the most important aspect of his program.
    "Education is key," he said. "Books before boxing has always been our motto."
    For Sweeney -- who's poured everything he owns into the program -- his purpose is to give these children the thing he always wanted.
    "We treat everyone here like family," he said. "We motivate each other."
    So far, 267 students have completed the program. All of them, he says, have graduated high school, and 98% have gone on to college.
    CNN's Meghan Dunn spoke with Sweeney about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
    CNN: What was your life like growing up?
    Sweeney: I always wondered, "Why? Where was my real family at?" I had a lot of anger inside of me. It displayed itself at the most inopportune times. At school always seemed the time that it flared up. I couldn't read or write. I just went until about 11th grade. I got a good report card. I'm like, "Well, how? I don't even know the teachers."
    I saw all the guys in the neighborhood. Those guys didn't have an education and they were doing well. They had nice cars, nice things. So, I turned to a life of crime. I started running the streets of Detroit. Everything that I didn't learn in school, I learned in the streets.
    I've been shot at multiple times. I had a guy shoot 26 rounds. (There) was a reason that he didn't hit me -- it was for me to be here for these kids.
    CNN: The kids in your program, they really listen to you.
    Sweeney: I've been there for real. So, when they hear it from me, it's like, "Oh, he's not sugar coating it." I had the abuse at home. I literally had my teeth knocked out of my mouth. I've seen how the school system can just push you through. I've been hungry. I've been living in abandoned houses. When I talk to you, I'm telling you from experience.
    Just imagine if you just fell in a hole and broke every bone in your body. It took you 20 years to crawl out of this hole, and the minute you crawl out, you see a young kid about to run right in that hole. You just move out of the way and let them fall in there? I can't do it. So, I'm going to do everything I can do to stop people from falling in that hole. I'm going to cover it up; I'm going to block it. Whatever I've got to do.
    CNN: Do you see a different side of these kids than others might see?
    Sweeney: I know for a fact that there's a lot more to these kids than first glance. For one, you've got to look at the environment, where they are. You've got to understand the history behind some of the behavior you see. This is not something that happened overnight. You're talking about generations and generations and generations of behavior.
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    Nobody gets up in the morning and says, "I wanna be a criminal." Nobody says, "I wanna go out and fail at life." It doesn't work like that. It's a culture that's being created. We have to break that culture, and we have to counteract that culture.
    I don't see bad kids. I see a kid who hasn't been heard yet. So, let's find out what's really going on. I see the true potential in the kids. If you get this kid the necessary tools, the resources, if you show this kid the extra time, he wants to be successful.
    CNN: What do you want your gym to be for these kids?
    Sweeney: Home. Like an ideal home. I want him to feel like he can go right to the refrigerator and grab something to eat or he can come to me. If he has a problem, he can come to an adult or somebody here and say, "Hey, listen, I have a problem." To feel like he's among people who love him and he's not being judged.
    We want to boost each other up around here all the time. I want a kid to feel that when he walks in the door, that he's a part of a family, a real family.
    Want to get involved? Check out the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program website and see how to help.
    To donate to Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program click the CrowdRise widget below.