One walk through the NYPD Cops & Kids program in Brooklyn and it’s clear that this is not your typical boxing gym.
“This is definitely nicer than the one that I was at,” laughs UFC President Dana White, a Police Athletic League gym alum who visited the facility on the Wednesday of UFC 268 fight week in NYC. It wasn’t a typical trip for White, but an opportunity to see one of the Cops & Kids Boxing program’s primary locations to meet the young people who have found a home away from home.
“I’m very pro-police, pro-military, and who isn’t pro-kids and getting kids off the street,” he said. “Plus, I came out of a PAL program, too, and it changed my life. What you get out of something like this is immeasurable. Lessons learned here, how hard you push yourself in a place like this, the types of people you meet, the different paths that people take, you name it.”
The only youth mentoring initiative in the NYC Metro Area free for youth ages 12 – 21, UFC partnered with the NYPD’s Cops & Kids program to provide financial assistance and global awareness of the initiative, aimed with assisting youth with after-school tutoring and fitness classes in their respective boroughs.
The first two hubs, located in Brooklyn and Staten Island, are led by current and retired NYPD officers who train and mentor youth while also connecting them with tutors to help with schoolwork.
Launched by retired NYPD officer Pat Russo in 1985, the Cops & Kids program has created its share of top local boxers, but more importantly, it has saved lives. Dramatic? Yes. But also true.
“It was in the 80s, so these streets were pretty bad and every kid that I talked to said the same thing: 'I'm selling drugs just to be part of the crew,'” recalled Russo, a rookie at the time who was a member of the NYPD boxing team and saw what the sport did for him. “And I was in Sunset Park where the Latin Kings were, and I'll tell you the truth, I can't even take credit for it. It was going to the community meetings and the people would tell us, ‘Yeah, you made a hundred arrests on 49th Street this month and it did nothing; all you did was give a hundred kids felony arrest records.’ And they said, we need to get these kids before the gangs get them. I had just started boxing at the time on the NYPD team, and I said, ‘You know what, let's open up a boxing program within Sunset Park.’ The locker room in the park was completely empty for 10 months of the year. Two months they would use it for the pool.”
Russo went to the Parks Department, but they weren’t interested. Undeterred, he then approached elected officials who made it clear that this was an anti-crime initiative and that it was going to be done. And it was.
Over three decades later, the Sunset Park program isn’t there anymore, but a location in Flatbush, Brooklyn is, as well as two in Staten Island. The goal is to have programs in all five boroughs of New York City, and the NYPD is firmly behind this essential program, which is completely free for youth 12-21 years of age.
“This program creates an opportunity for young people and it gives them a place to be other than the street corners,” said Chief Jeffrey Maddrey, of the NYPD’s Community Affairs Bureau. “It gives them something to do after school. And this is more than just about boxing and physical fitness. Cops & Kids is about mentoring and it's about academics - helping young people with their schoolwork and it's a place where they have an outlet, where they can talk to somebody about things they may be afraid to talk to their parents or siblings about. So this program is very important for the community.”
UFC middleweight contender Urijah Hall, from nearby Queens, also visited the program and wished it was something available to him when he was growing up.
“Something like this is important for the kids,” said Hall. “I know when I was coming up I wasn't going down a wrong path; I was more bullied in school, so I didn't have any good outlet and I think something like this as a positive reinforcement probably would have established me faster. But maybe I had to go through my own journey to get bullied enough to start in martial arts, which is kind of like this and that turned the course for me. So something like this, especially for kids, is something that you should have spreading like wildfire.”
That’s the goal, and with White and the UFC’s commitment to the program, which relies on donations and net proceeds from boxing events Cops & Kids coordinate, it’s one that’s within reach and essential for kids who, like Hall, don’t have that positive outlet.
Skipper Kelp, one of the premier action fighters of the 90s, beamed as he walked into the facility.
“It's nostalgic, especially seeing these kids,” he said. “This is how 99.9 percent of us all started, in a gym like this in the neighborhood, and it's pretty cool. All these kids have a dream and if not that, they have an outlet, so it's really cool to see.”
Also at the location that day was 130-pound star Chris Colbert and former contender Gabriel Bracero, and who knows, maybe more contenders and champions were being born in that room.
“We were taking pictures here today and the police chief said in six or seven years, one of these kids is gonna walk up to you and show this picture,” said White. “It's happened to me a million times already, so I can just imagine coming out of here.”
Maybe that’s the dream of the kids putting on the gloves, or perhaps they’re in the gym to stay in shape, be around their friends, or just have a place to go to get away for a couple hours. Whatever it is, Maddrey and the force are all-in.
“We have young people who come from all over the city, who take two or three trains, two or three buses, to come to this program because it's a safe place for them to be,” he said. “There's cops and adults from the community - community leaders, elected officials, clergy - that care about them, and it's free for them to come here, do schoolwork, get homework help, have a mentor, to do physical fitness training. So it's important that we have places for our young people to go that doesn't cost them anything. It's important for their parents, too. It helps the parents when they need a safe place to send them so the parents can work and do the things that are needed around the home.”
Throughout the visit, Russo was like the proud father watching all his kids do well. And it is like that, because while so many kids are spending their afterschool hours on social media or video games, he’s building a community of young people who are using their time in a more productive manner.
“Social media could be very bad and it could be very good,” Russo said. “We use social media to highlight our good kids and the great things that they're doing, the accomplishments that they're making, and once you put that out there, the kids come. We don't have to advertise anywhere. We use the kids in the program that are doing well and we give an incentive for education, too. Because it's not about boxing. When we started, it was an anti-crime initiative. It was crime prevention. Once you get to these kids and keep them off the street, they're not out committing crimes, they're not getting in trouble. A lot of kids that came through the program, they take the police test. And boxing is going to attract the kids that want to be perceived as tough guys on the street, and they can be tough guys in the ring.”
The ring or the Octagon weeds out the wannabe tough guys and turns those who didn’t have the confidence before into real tough guys…in life.
“At a young age I didn't have confidence,” said Hall. “And I think that when I got bullied, coming as an immigrant to a new country, I didn't know anything about confidence. So I think it's important for kids to understand or to instill confidence in a child. And what I learned from this is a never quitting attitude. For kids, it's easy to quit things. They start something, they don't finish it. And I know with martial arts or any type of activity in this sport, it's gonna always teach you to work through that grind and those uncomfortable times, and I think it translates to life because life is a fight.”
To learn more about the program and how you can help, please visit www.nypdboxing.com