The second Game Changers honoree, who will be celebrated during the Red Wings' home game on February 25 and presented with a personalized jersey and a Game Changers plaque, is Khali Sweeney, the founder and CEO of southeast Detroit's Downtown Boxing Gym.
The Downtown Boxing Gym is a nonprofit after-school academic and athletic program that provides Detroit students aged 8-18 with a path to success through tutoring, mentorship, enrichment programs, college and career prep, social-skill building, basic needs support, transportation and much more.
[Learn more about all the Game Changers honorees at DetroitRedWings.com/Equality]
Sweeney founded the education-focused safe haven--whose motto is 'books before boxing'--in 2007 in an attempt to provide the resources and role models students need to succeed in school and in life.
"I saw a need for it in the community," the 51-year-old Sweeney said. "There was an absence of any type of positive activity for the kids in the community and I saw this everywhere I went. It was the same cycle being repeated over and over again."
After enduring a tough childhood of his own, where Sweeney struggled to read and write, was involved in gangs and was raised by foster parents, the lifelong Detroit resident felt compelled to help kids with backgrounds similar to his.
Sweeney quit a successful job in construction and went to work to find a safe place for kids to receive tutoring, mentorship and discipline through the art of boxing.
"I made it out, but I asked myself, how many kids don't even have a chance to make it? Construction work wasn't really fulfilling for me," Sweeney said about his decision to alter his life to start the program. "I was at work one day and just decided to do something more productive with my life, something that can benefit the whole community.
"I quit my job that day and decided to dedicate my life to what I'm passionate about and what I really wanted to be doing."
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But the transition wasn't smooth for Sweeney in the beginning.
While attempting to build an organizational infrastructure and secure funding, facilities, qualified tutors and coaches, Sweeney lost everything. He put all his resources into the program and in doing so, he became homeless and hungry, living out of his car and losing more than 60 pounds of muscle.
"When it first started, I was doing everything by myself," he said. "I had no resources, I pretty much sold everything I had and ended up homeless. I went broke just trying to keep the gym open."
Sweeney slowly began growing the program by offering boxing lessons to adults for free. The only caveat was his clients had to agree to tutor children in the community and mentor them after school.
While he was struggling, Sweeney met a woman named Jessica Hauser, who was looking for a personal trainer. Hauser had a business acumen, with a degree from Oakland University, and began helping Sweeney develop a business infrastructure.
Together, Sweeney and Hauser built the Downtown Boxing Gym from the ground up into the thriving nonprofit organization it is today. Hauser now serves as the gym's executive director--a role she has held since 2010.
And what began as a one-man grassroots movement in a former car wash in 2007 has transformed into a beautiful 27,000-square-foot facility with more than 150 participants, a full-time staff of instructors and mentors and more than 1,300 children on the waiting list.
The program has also graduated 100 percent of its students from high school since 2007, and 98 percent of its students have gone onto college.
"As you learn about his journey and the sacrifices he made to build a better future for children in Detroit, it's clear that Khali is a perfect example of a Game Changer," said Red Wings and Tigers director of community impact Kevin Brown. "Khali's story shows that when you set a goal and passionately chase it, anything is possible."
In recognition of his success, Sweeney was a 2017 finalist for CNN's Hero of the Year award, he was honored by national publications like People Magazine and ESPN.com and this past October, the Downtown Boxing Gym was featured on NBC's The Today Show for its incredible effort during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the pandemic hit, Sweeney and his team quickly jumped into action, outfitting their vans with personal protection equipment and boxed meals for program participants. Sweeney's team also made sure the kids' families were fed and he partnered with other community organizations to ensure families' needs were met.
Instead of decreasing his staff during the pandemic as several other organizations were forced to do, Sweeney hired additional staff members to keep up with increased demand by employing online tutors and creating virtual workouts.
"We're giving everybody the tools they need to be successful," Sweeney said. "There's no reason for a kid to be falling behind because they don't have access to the internet. A lot of these kids are doing online schooling, and the only computer in the house is on somebody's phone. We make sure they have internet access and we make sure they have tutors.
"We make sure we have the resources for the kids to succeed. We do job shadowing, financial literacy, mock trials at the federal courthouse, exposure to a lot of different things."
True to his character, Sweeney said he's thrilled about being a Red Wing Game Changers honoree, not for his own accolades, but because it can shine a light on all the tremendous work of others in the metro Detroit community and inspire people to do more.
"I think it's excellent because a lot of people work tirelessly, and if you work for the community, you know there's very little time for celebration because there's always more work to be done," Sweeney said. "And when someone recognizes you in any way, it boosts you up and puts another spark in you to push a little bit harder. Because most of the time, you're just working and you don't take time for yourself.
"And for somebody to take time out to honor you, it just makes you feel good. It gives you that added push to get up in the morning and keep doing what you're doing. I think it's going to inspire a lot of people; it's going to keep people going and it might be that little boost, that little pat on the back to keep moving forward."
And while the Downtown Boxing Gym is thriving amid a global pandemic, Sweeney said he's eager to put the pandemic in the past so he can continue growing his program and help even more kids.
"We're currently trying to add 100 kids to our program, we're starting an apprentice program right now and I'd love to get some of those 1,300 kids off the waiting list," Sweeney said. "I hope to see us continue growing and continue serving our community and beyond."
For more information on Sweeney and the fantastic work of the Downtown Boxing Gym, visit DBGDetroit.org.