Cop teaches boxing to give kids a fighting chance for a better future

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Cambridge, Massachusetts (CNN)Officer John Jones played sports growing up, but boxing wasn't in his wheelhouse. Until he saw the ring as a way to connect with at-risk teenagers in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"I'd go home and get on YouTube and I'd learn how to train boxing one on one," Jones said, "It was a fake-it-till-you-make-it kind of thing."
And it worked.
Jones, called "JJ" by his students, now teaches a free boxing program twice a week aimed at giving underprivileged kids in the community a fighting chance to better their futures.
    Jones, right, has trained, and positively influenced, nearly 750 kids over the years.
    "I figured that if I could set up a program to connect with the kids, to get them in here to learn something while still connecting with the police department, I figured that was the best way to start building those relationships," said Jones, who works as a school resource officer.
    Jones started the program in 2011. It was initially aimed toward kids who were in and out of trouble, or kids struggling at school or home. Soon, word of the class spread across the city and participants wanted to start bringing their friends. So, Jones opened his program to everyone.
    "Once this class gets going, it's kind of the place to be," Jones said with a smile.

    The program

    The boxing program is a collaboration between the Cambridge Police Department Youth & Family Services Unit and the Cambridge YMCA.
    Jones approached the Cambridge YMCA, which provided the boxing ring and heavy bags for free.
    The classes are designed to help encourage kids to learn how to defend themselves, gain confidence, stay in shape and, most importantly, stay out of trouble.
    "I don't think I've ever missed a Tuesday or Thursday," Jones explained. The married father of three went on to say, "I haven't been on a vacation since the program started because I can't, I have to be back."

    Changing lives

    Jones has trained nearly 750 kids over the years. Many kids have his cell phone number, and he tries to be available to them for guidance, support and encouragement at all times.
    "When they leave, they have reality to face, some of these kids are going home to little or no food or bad situations," said Jones.
    One of his students didn't even have a home to go to.
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    Alfonso Hidalgo, age 23, turned to JJ at one of the worst times in his life.
    "I was homeless. I struggled with secure housing. My family went from house to house ... I came here the first day and I was kind of impressed by the group of people that were here," recalled Hidalgo, "there was young boys, young girls, young men, young women, professional working adults. I was like, 'Wow. I like this.'
    At first Hidalgo, a child of the streets, had trouble trusting Jones. "You hear a cop, you run sometimes without even knowing why. He was probably the first person that made me see beyond the uniform, beyond the blue."
    The two formed a strong bond through the sport.
    While Jones isn't looking to train kids to fight, he found a fighter in Hidalgo. In 2016, Hidalgo participated and won the Western New England's Golden Glove Championship. He also began to excel at school and went on to earn his B.A. at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
    Hidalgo gives Jones a lot of credit for his success. "He welcomed me. From the beginning, there was always like a good vibe. It was genuine. It felt genuine."
    Jones started the program in 2011.
    Another star student of Jones' is 15-year-old Elissa Gould. Jones says she was shy and struggling with depression when she was introduced to the program.
    "Coming here I've been more open to meeting new people and kind of engaging in a lot of stuff," Elissa said.
    And it's been successful for Elissa, who now balances competitive dancing classes with her new-found love for boxing. Elissa calls the group her family; her mother calls it a lifesaver.
    "There's a difference in her smile. It's a real smile now. We can tell that she really loves to be here. We love having her," Jones said.