Surprising new anti-violence initiative launches in Chicago

Can learning to punch someone reduce violence in Chicago?

The Illinois State Crime Commission and the Police Athletic League think so and are introducing a new youth anti-violence initiative: learning to box.

The sport is intended to serve as a gateway to get junior high and high school kids off the streets. PAL boxing programs exist nationwide, but this is the first one in Illinois.

“Boxing is a hook, a draw to get you in the program,” said John Bitoy, PAL Boxing Gym Liaison. Bitoy has also been involved with the West Englewood Boxing Club for more than a decade. Throughout that time, Bitoy said he has buried seven kids from the area who died violently.

For reasons like that, others jumped at the opportunity to participate, including police officers, firefighters and PAL program media director, Rasheda Ali, daughter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Rasheda said she is committed to helping PAL not only to reduce juvenile delinquency, but also to promote recreational athletics.

Rasheda’s father got his start in a Police Athletic League in Kentucky when he was 12 and his bicycle was stolen. The police officer he told about the theft simply told him if he wanted his bike back he needed to learn to box.

His daughter got involved for an additional reason.

Years ago, one of her first cousins was gunned down outside of his home. While some families are able to move to safer neighborhoods, not everyone can. For that reason, Rasheda said, something has to be done.

“If I can save at least one child from being gunned down in front of their home, then the work we are doing here today is worth it,” said Rasheda. “I said yes because of my cousin.”

Some still might wonder, why boxing? Why build an anti-violence program around a controversial sport?

This is “a fight we can’t afford to lose,” said Jerry Elsner, the executive director of the Illinois Crime Commission. “Our children are dying. We have to get them in the gym and, most of all, we have to give them hope.”

Boxing is a state of mind, a retired boxer at the presentation said. With the training and mentoring of law enforcement officials, firefighters and PAL boxers, kids will learn to recognize their ability to overcome difficulties.

The Chicago Park District has 17 gyms to practice in, with plans to increase to 20. Several boxing clubs, including the McGarry, Celtic and West Englewood clubs, are affiliated with the program.

With approximately 400 kids involved, PAL Boxing Director Mike Joyce said he has plans to expand.

The first ISCC/PAL Boxing Gala is scheduled for May 6 at the Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney. The event will recognize participants and coaches as well as attempt to get sponsors. Supporters will enable the program to further develop as well as offer qualified PAL participants internships, scholarships and apprenticeships.

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