Friday night at the Columbia Boxing Club was business as usual. The seven young men practicing that night changed clothes in the Bear Creek Community Center’s bathrooms, ran laps outside and met back at the center’s makeshift ring for warm-up exercises.
Eventually they wrapped their hands with athletic tape, put on their gloves and practiced their hits on punching bags, their coach’s hands or into the air. Shawn Soil, 10, the night’s youngest boxer, needed help with the tape and the big gloves. Coach Brian Cook smiled as he helped with the tasks, then lifted the ropes for him to get into the ring.
Because of some good news on Wednesday, this set-up might not be usual for long. The club is one of several partners of a Columbia non-profit group, Positive Regional Impact! Diversified Enterprise which hopes to finance a $4 million free community center in the First Ward. On Wednesday, the group received its first major pledge of $200,000 for the boxing gym.
The pledge is for naming rights. PRIDE won’t accept actual donations or release the name of the donor until the group has secured land for the center and are sure it has community support for such a large project.
Cook said the news about the pledge was extremely exciting.
Right now, about 10 to 15 dedicated members show up for almost every practice. Though many members don’t live near the center on Columbia’s north side off Range Line Street, most show up every Monday, Wednesday and Friday when the group practices. The club teaches them discipline, Cook said, in part just to find a way to get there every day.
Justin Jones, 16, said his mom brings him most nights, and in the summer he sometimes catches a city bus. He has been coming for two years.
“If I wasn’t here, I’d just be sitting home playing games,” Jones said. “I’ve learned discipline from boxing. You can’t improve without it.”
Jones added that his discipline in boxing has also helped him in school.
Relocating to a new center in the central city would be a huge improvement for the club, Cook said. On the most basic level, they would finally have lockers instead of milk crates and showers instead of sinks.
Bill Clark, a member of the boxing club board of directors and a delegate to PRIDE, said the club meets too far away from the population of kids that need it most.
“Boxing as a sport primarily appeals to kids who live a rougher life,” Clark said. “They can’t buy golf clubs or tennis rackets, but they can box. It’s an outlet for them.”
First Ward Ambassador Tracy Edwards, who is also on the PRIDE board of directors, said this type of social network is the best way to begin to solve the problems of the First Ward. On weeknights, Douglass High School gym is open and many neighborhood kids come to play basketball.
Members of the Ambassadors are also there to supervise, and Edwards says he’s noticed fewer problems on the streets when kids have a place to go. Unfortunately, the gym isn’t open on weekends.
“Only ten of them can play basketball at a time,” Edwards said, adding that there can be anywhere from 15 to 30 kids on a regular night. “But the rest sit around and interact with each other. It’s not just about basketball, it’s about them needing that social network.”
The First Ward has many organizations to help get kids off the street and focus on something positive. The Intersection, Granny’s House, and the Boys and Girls Club are a few.
Edwards and Ellen Wiss, co-founder of PRIDE, both said that these organizations serve a great purpose, but even with all of them put together, it’s not enough.
“We estimate that there are about 2,000 kids in the First Ward alone,” Wiss said. “All of those organizations together can serve about 200 at most. This center is about filling a need. It isn’t to be competitive with any of the other programs.”
The new center won’t just offer recreation. The plans also include meeting rooms, offices, classrooms and a commercial-size kitchen, Wiss said. Some of PRIDE’s partner organizations, especially the boxing club, the Ambassadors and the Imani Mission Center have space limitations.
“Not only can the center bring these groups together and serve kids in many areas, but the center can serve as a hub,” she said. “It can be a central outreach location for partnering with the public schools, the universities or others.”
The center will be open to everyone, not just kids in the central city or members of the organizations signed on with PRIDE, she added.
Wiss and the PRIDE board recognizes that raising $4 million and keeping the center free will be a challenge.
“It will be hard, definitely,” she said. “But this community is hungry for it, and it does have the resources to build it. We just need to tap into those.”
Clark said the project does seem large, but he thinks it is necessary.
“I’ve lived here for a long time, and this is the first time that I’ve seen such a positive move to make something happen in the First Ward on a scale that is needed,” Clark said.
Wiss said the board has been canvassing the community for input. The board held a meeting at Douglass gym earlier this month and at the community forum at Unitarian Universalist Church last week to talk with community members about their ideas. Although they were not soliciting donations at either meeting, Sue Tillema became the first contributor with a $100 check.
The group plans to formally launch its project to potential investors at an event on Feb. 16 at Tiger Hotel.
“We plan to hit the fundraising after that and see where it takes us,” Wiss said.
A portion of this report first aired Saturday during “News At 10” on KMIZ/Channel 17 ABC, Columbia.