By RENEE STOVSKY
Life can throw you a sucker punch. It's how you react to the blow that determines whether you stay down for the count or get up and fight again.
James Curles, founder and executive director of Team Achieve Boxing, wraps the hands of Damarion "Tank" White, age 14. With a motto "Gloves, not guns," the central Indianapolis youth ministry provides an alternative to drugs and criminal pursuits for tough, disadvantaged city kids, guiding them toward good decisions and college. The Ascension Ministry Service Center in Indianapolis is a corporate sponsor of Team Achieve.
Photo by Mykal McEldowney/© CHA
That's one of the lessons an urban ministry, Team Achieve Boxing, tries to instill in the 200 or so 8- to 18-year-olds that come through its gym doors each year on the near east side of Indianapolis. The vast majority of them have experienced more jabs and hooks in their short lives than is imaginable — homelessness, hunger, drugs, gang violence and more. By teaching boxing fundamentals — including strategies like bobbing and weaving along with self-discipline, anger control, tenacity and fortitude — Team Achieve hopes to make them competitive not only in the ring, but also in their schools, careers and personal lives.
Begun eight years ago under the auspices of Achieve International, Team Achieve came to the attention of the Ascension Ministry Service Center, also located in Indianapolis, when Rev. Glenn McDonald, the center's director of mission integration, met Team Achieve's founder and executive director, James Curles, in 2011.
"I was so impressed with James. He came out of the same kind of rough upbringing as these kids and now, with college degrees and pastoral training under his belt, he is devoting his whole life to helping young men find an alternative to life on the streets," says Rev. McDonald. "Team Achieve reflects two of our core values — service of the poor and reverence, or compassion for individuals who are ignored or left behind. I knew we needed to become a corporate sponsor for their ministry."
Changing hearts and lives
The Ministry Service Center provides back office services including human resources, supply chain and finance services to St. Louis-based Ascension. Since locating its office in Indianapolis five years ago, the Ministry Service Center has entered into 14 partnerships around the city, all related to helping people on the margins. The center encourages full-time employees to become personally involved in those partnerships — ranging from School on Wheels, which mentors homeless children; to PAWS, which provides service dogs to help kids learn to read; and Julian Center, which helps women and children affected by domestic violence. Ministry Service Center employees are eligible for three paid "mission in action" hours each month. Rev. McDonald estimates that 15 to 20 employees have chosen to spend their volunteer time with Team Achieve.
Evan Camara, 12, left, and Aidan Bryant, 11, go to work on heavy bags during a training session at the Team Achieve gym in Indianapolis.
Photo by Mykal McEldowney/© CHA
One of the most involved is Pamela Beeler, 47, who oversees relationships with clients of the Ministry Service Center. She grew up on Indianapolis' east side, not far from Team Achieve.
"I've been involved with several of our mission partners, but Team Achieve has my heart," she says. "I've been a single mom; I know what a struggle it is to raise kids. So many of these boys have been in and out of foster care and juvenile court. They live on the streets, and the only thing they've known is how to fight, steal and do drugs," she continues. "James sees a vision of them that is different; he brings them aboard, believes in them, shows them that someone cares. And ultimately, he changes lives."
Beeler's activism plays a part in changing that dynamic as well.
Mind over body
Team Achieve's hours are 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, with the first two hours devoted to homework, tutoring and job training help. (Boys must maintain 2.5 GPAs and have good academic attendance records to be eligible to compete in boxing tournaments.) From 6 p.m. until closing, the focus turns to exercising and working out in the two boxing rings.
And Beeler — 5 feet tall and now a grandmother of three — doesn't hesitate to get involved in all hours and aspects of the program. She helps kids with homework, especially English and math assignments. She fundraises to provide snacks, since she is well aware that at times the only food kids eat is what they get at school or the gym. She jumps rope and rides stationary bikes with them. She says she'll even don a pair of boxing gloves and "play around" with them in the ring.
Andrew Boston, 8, focuses during classroom time at Team Achieve.
Photo by Mykal McEldowney/© CHA
Deep bench of support
And that's just the beginning. Beeler organizes an annual "Backpack Attack" campaign to provide kids with school supplies and alarm clocks. She helps provide a Thanksgiving meal for Team Achieve participants and makes sure there is a Christmas party with another meal and stockings stuffed with presents. She arranges for teams of Ministry Service Center employees to clean the gym as well as paint and landscape around the building.
And when the Team Achieve van needed $978 in repairs, she used part of the $1,500 award she received from the Ministry Service Center's individual recognition excellence program, to pay the bill so the kids could get to their tournaments safely. And yes, Beeler also attends many of those tournaments to cheer the kids on.
"Our mission is so great that we can never have enough help. It would be impossible for us to carry on without the folks at MSC, like Pamela, and all they do," says Curles, 41, who has a staff of four but depends on 20 or so volunteers each week — including area teachers and police officers — to help keep things running smoothly.
One community collaboration that both Curles and Rev. McDonald point to with great pride is the house they secured and rehabbed a few years ago to shelter homeless kids under staff supervision.
"Wells Fargo offered to sell us an abandoned property — a two-bedroom, one-bath house — for $1 and made a gift of $10,000 to shore up the basement," says Curles. "We turned to MSC, who became our biggest single contributor, raising $20,000 to help rehab the house. The entire property was renovated at a total cost of $60,000, and MSC employees actually provided hands-on help, cleaning gutters, hanging doors, painting and more."
Team Achieve follows the USA Olympic boxing program. Golden Gloves, an organization that promotes amateur boxing, is a sponsor. Team Achieve participants compete in amateur International Boxing Association–sanctioned events. Team Achieve recently made Indiana history by having three team members qualify for, and compete in, a national tournament. And in July, one Team Achieve boxer, Austin Manning, 18, won the 123 pound weight class in the 17/18-year-old division at the 2016 Ringside World Championship of Boxing in Kansas City, Mo., the largest amateur tournament in the world.
Aidan Bryant, foreground, spars in a ring at the Team Achieve gym.
Photo by Mykal McEldowney/© CHA
But it's the fights outside of the ring that mean the most to Curles. Many of the kids who come into the Team Achieve program have felony records, he says, but he's never had a state champion get into legal trouble or become a repeat offender.
"Fifty percent of the kids who walk through our door will stick with the program for four weeks or more. Out of those, our success rate is pretty impressive. Our goal is to get them to graduate from high school and go on to some sort of postsecondary education, be it junior college, college, a vocational program or a formal apprenticeship," he says.
The Ministry Service Center helps in that regard, too, by hosting visits to its office to show kids what behavior is expected in the workplace.
"I always know when Team Achieve boxers arrive by the clinking of the medals they wear so proudly," says Rev. McDonald. "We try to impress on them the basics of office decorum — the importance of showing up on time, appropriate dress, how to interact with others, and so on."
For kids who have spent the majority of their lives on the streets, nothing is a given, says Curles.
"Sure, we have our setbacks. We have kids who leave the program and wind up in jail. We have kids who make progress, then make mistakes, and bounce back again. But we also have a kid studying chemistry at the University of Alabama, another who is now a nurse practitioner, another who manages a factory," he says.
"Our motto is gloves, not guns. We attract our kids with boxing, and we hopefully give them tools to live successful lives," says Curles.
Boys, teens achieve victories in and out of ring
Behind every Team Achieve Boxing participant there is a story of struggle before success. Here are a few examples:
Donell Mayes is 12 years old and in the seventh grade at Belzer Middle School in Indianapolis. He started going to Team Achieve at 9 because, he says, he "liked the sport and it kept me off the street." At 105 pounds, he's now been in seven competitions and has an undefeated record. Even better, he's doing well in school.
"Sometimes when my mom can't drop me off here, Coach James comes and gets me," he says, referring to James Curles, the founder and executive director of Team Achieve Boxing in Indianapolis. "He also helps me with my homework. Team Achieve gives me someplace to go after school is out," he says.
Lamar Britton is 14 and attends Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Indianapolis. A friend brought him to Team Achieve when he was 10, and he's been coming ever since. "I used to like to just hit people in the face, but James is teaching me how to move now," he says. "He's always here for me."
That's a good thing, because Lamar is currently in foster care. "Sometimes I get a ride here from my mom," he says. "I've made friends here, and I'm hoping I can go home soon."
Austin Manning, 18, is a senior at Pike High School in Indianapolis. At 5 feet 6 inches and 123 pounds, he won the 2016 Ringside World Championship of Boxing in Kansas City, Mo.
"I started boxing in the seventh grade, when I lived in Fort Wayne. I always liked combat sports. Boxing has given me confidence in general; I never really did anything before, but now I have something to be proud about," he says.
Last year, Manning says, he wanted to drop out of school. "Coach James convinced me to stay in school, and now I'm on track to graduate. I come in earlier than normal to get my homework done," he says.
After graduation, Manning plans to stick around the gym and help out. "I want to be a professional boxer, but I plan to stay amateur until after the 2020 Olympics," he says. Curles is encouraging him to pursue a college degree.
James Dowdy, 18, started coming to Team Achieve two years ago, after he got expelled from school for fighting. At 6 feet, 197 pounds, he played varsity football, but got dropped from the team because of low grades.
Now Curles picks him up from school at 4 p.m. so he can do his homework at the gym, which provides computers and tutors when needed. "Coach James says I can't be a boxer unless I'm studying. He not only gives me rides, he also feeds me if I'm hungry and beats me up in a good way," says Dowdy.
Because of Team Achieve, Dowdy says his life is "on the right track" now. After getting kicked out of both his mother's and father's houses, he is living with a sister and "stepping up to the plate, learning responsibility." He's on track to graduate in December from Excel Center, a charter school in Indianapolis. And he's learned to "put fighting to good use."
That translates into two Golden Gloves won in two years. "I'm looking for an athletic scholarship to go to college," says Dowdy. "I've always wanted to go to Purdue and study business."
— RENEE STOVSKY
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