Former World Lightweight Boxing Champ Keely Thompson is on a mission. He's trying to help "at risk" youth escape the mean streets of inner-city Washington by teaching them self-respect and how to box. VOA introduces you to him in this week's installment of Making a Difference.
Thompson has a tough job. Teaching boxing and, more importantly, discipline to inner-city youth. "It focuses them and makes them buckle down and do the right things in life," he said.
At 25, Thompson fought his way to become World Lightweight Boxing Champion. Today, he trains and teaches young people blocks from where he grew up. It's a rough neighborhood where, he says, he competes against drugs and gangs for attention.
"Most of the kids that come in here are at-risk, gang violence, come from broken homes, no mother, no father, uneducated," he said.
Thompson says the majority of his young boxers read below age level, and often go hungry. They come in search of a better life.
"Every kid that comes in this program wants to change," said Thompson.
In the ring, Thompson doesn't just teach boxing. He shares personal values and encourages self-respect. He says helping just one youth can make a big difference. "You start hearing that bad kid telling the next kid, 'That's not the right way,'" he said. The boxing gym unites young people from across Washington.
"Salvador [Jovel] is a Hispanic kid. He told me he's no wimp, but he was crying - I ain't [am not] a wimp, I just want to change," Thompson recalls. "I would promote this place to any young person that wanted to change themselves and find another option," Jovel said.
When Leo DeLeon started at the center five years ago, he told Thompson he had dreams. "My mom, it was always her by herself, so I owe her a lot," DeLeon explaines. "I want to give her back something."
DeLeon says if the youth center closes, many of the participants would turn to crime.
But it's a struggle to keep the center open. "We need new gloves, books. We need teachers," Thompson said. His staff of 13 is now down to just three - all working for free.
One of them is Rodney McIntyre - a friend of more than 40 years. He says the young boxers motivate him day after day despite budget cuts. McIntyre has been working for free.
Today the "Champ" uses his own money to keep working with kids he's heard called "the worst of the worst."
"Someone asked me, 'Why do you keep doing what you're doing? Why don't you give up on them?' I say, 'Why do you think that kid keeps coming back? He wants to change,'" Thompson explained.
Thompson tells them he'll see them again tomorrow - and he will. No one wants to miss a day of training at Keely's Boxing and Youth Center.