- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 17, 2006

Strategy is the name of the game in boxing, just as it is when acquiring study skills.

Former lightweight boxing champion Keely Thompson took that approach two years ago when he created a program to lure budding athletes off the streets, away from the temptations of gang life and into an unmarked gymnasium at 1459 Columbia Road NW.

Keely’s District Boxing and Youth Center, which operates between 3 and 9 p.m. weekdays in the basement of Calvary-Casa del Pueblo United Methodist Church, makes it mandatory that young people who come for free boxing lessons also attend literacy and nutrition classes on-site. Anyone age 8 to 18 is eligible, but young men 19 and older who are out of school can pay a one-time $50 initiation fee to box and are exempt from the classes.

He estimates that more than 700 young people have been to the center for short- or long-term stays, with as many as 100 present in a single day.

“We never thought there would be that many,” he says. “We target kids from broken homes and many are gang members looking for a way out.”

At least one boxer won a college scholarship after joining the gym.

Mr. Thompson, 41, the center’s chief boxing instructor who won his titles in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, very early realized that young boys — and the few girls — attracted to the sweet science need a more substantial diet to succeed in life.

“If you break both hands, you still have your head,” he likes to say.

The link isn’t hard to fathom, especially when youths such as Jerry Odom, 13, a student at the District’s Taft Middle School, comes to the center’s classes in fighter togs directly after sparring in the ring, his hands wrapped in protective cloth. Worried that his son was “out of control,” Jerry’s father had recommended that he join the center, Mr. Thompson says.

Angelia Kwabenah, 37, a reading development specialist with two master’s degrees in education, conducts the low-key after-school literacy and tutoring sessions on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. She is Mr. Thompson’s sister-in-law. Bianca Thompson, a registered nurse who is Mr. Thompson’s wife, handles Tuesday’s mandatory health and nutrition classes in the same room, directly across from the gym floor where students are shadowboxing, hitting punching bags and doing calisthenics.

When sweat collects on the classroom floor, instructors simply ask a student to do a quick cleanup with paper towels.

A sign in the classroom — one of many upbeat reminders pasted on walls — states: “Read before you eat it. What is the best choice for you?” It is left over from a nutrition lesson on understanding food labels. The emphasis in Tuesday’s classes is the basics of personal habits and healthy eating. Edwin Duarte, 17, a promising boxer who commutes from Fort Washington, went from 318 to 255 pounds in the two years he has participated.

A computer sits on a table in the corner not far from a scale. A fan is on, the TV is off. Dictionaries, magazines and books are piled on another table. Students arrive one by one for what Miss Kwabenah calls “literacy enhancement” that, on this particular day, she mixes with some tutoring. She passes around sharpened pencils to have everyone sign in and then asks whether they have homework. They shake their heads. “Are you sure?” she asks. Two pull out their papers.

Since it is only two weeks into the school year and she has not seen many in the group before, she wants to get to know them better by quizzing them about school and leisure choices. “I’m a stickler for grammar and punctuation,” she says. But her manner is relaxed overall.

“Write a short paragraph telling me what are your best school subjects. It would be nice if it were reading, but it doesn’t have to be,” she says with a smile.

She asks about what they like to do for fun, what their favorite television show is and about their favorite kind of book. Four in the group read a daily newspaper, and three of them look at more than the sports pages, she is encouraged to hear.

One student’s favorite book is “Death Be Not Proud,” the classic John Gunther memoir about his son’s battle against the brain tumor that would take his life.

“It is not a formal lesson plan of the kind I do during the school day, because I don’t have enough time,” she explains. (A District employee, she works at Green Elementary School in Southeast.)

“We want to keep the kids on track and keep them focused. Also, we have varying levels of ability. I try to see what students are struggling with the most, to focus on comprehension strategies and how to analyze different types of texts. I don’t want to discourage them. I want class to be fun and have them engaged and interested. Keep in mind, some already have done their physical training and had long days in school and are tired when they get here.”

Most of the students read at least one grade below the one in which they are registered, she says.

Physical and mental conditioning go hand in hand is Mr. Thompson’s constant refrain, but he and his staff of two — augmented by volunteers — regard their attempts in this direction to be only a shadow of what they could accomplish on a bigger budget in a larger facility. The center’s annual $100,000 budget comes from patrons and grants, including one from the District government. Council member Jim Graham is one of their biggest backers.

“We should have one million,” Mr. Thompson says.

A black-tie benefit planned for Nov. 4 at the Marriott Wardman Hotel is priced at a minimum $100 a head.

The District pays the church $1,000 a month in rent, and much of the equipment is donated. Students must buy their own hand wraps and mouthpieces, but gloves are provided. Miss Kwabenah would like to have enough money to organize the literacy program so that it is full time and offer prep classes for high school equivalency diplomas.

“We have a large Latino population and a lot of the parents are not proficient [in English],” she says.

“We’ll even get them to work on field trips,” Mr. Thompson boasts.

“I use the time to play word search puzzles and trivia questions,” Miss Kwabenah says.

These trips are mainly forays to theme parks to give children opportunities they otherwise might not have to get out of the city.

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