East Oakland can be a tough neighborhood for a kid. It's a landscape designed for industry, not for children, and there aren’t many places to play. But a couple blocks east of the 880 freeway, down 98th avenue, is a little refuge that serves as a second home and playground for the those growing up in East Oakland. It's the East Oakland Boxing Association.
The gym is a little smaller than a basketball court with high ceilings. Years ago, it was an auto body shop. The exercise gear bears the marks of years of use. Free weights are pitted with dents. Right now one 13-year-old is working with the speed ball. Older boys spot each other to lift weights and do sit ups and raise strength. One of the boxers finishes his routine and pulls on his gloves. His name is Christian Puloo and he's pretty much grown up now. But when he first came to the gym, he was just eight years old. That’s when he met the man who started this gym, Stanley Garcia.
“I don't like to be too open, but since my family has been clean, I can say certain stuff,” says Puloo. Puloo’s mother used to sell drugs, he explains. His mother alsu used to bring him to the gym where Stanly Garcia would let him work our. It was a safe place for Puloo and people who met there became like family to him. “Stanley Garcia and Paul Wright, they were like the first two men I ever seen as a minority that I can respect and say those were men,” Puloo says.
Eventually, he became entranced with boxing and now he's a serious competitor. He still trains regularly at the gym. For the toughest kids, boxing provides a way for them channel the need to prove to themselves into discipline. But not all the kids who come here actually come to train says coach Jamal Valdez-Allen. “Sometimes a good excuse is ‘you know, I'm going to the boxing gym’ and they won't get teased for going to the boxing gym even though they're really coming to do homework,” Valdez-Allen explains.
In the building next to the gym a dozen younger kids are spread out around tables. Some are working with a tutor, a couple are reading, and a few are lying on the stage meticulously filling in what looks like abstract patterns on a set of pages with paint brushes.
“We're painting a poster for Obama,” explains one nine-year-old named D’Angelo. He seems happy to be making art, but if he gets bored there's also a computer lab, a library, a fashion and sewing club. And on this visit, Gerard Priestess, known around the gym as Chef Gerard, is helping students make potato salad. They’re preparing a special meal for their black history celebration. When asked if he cooks for the children every day, Priestess responds, “I don't cook for the kids, we cook together.”
The kids get a meal everyday and they learn to cook it, like many of the activities here. It's an idea that came from the children themselves and Chef Gerard says that cooking is a necessary life skill. It's the flip side of physical fitness. If you want a good nutrition on a budget, you have to learn how to cook.
That lesson goes beyond the kitchen here and all the way back to the garden behind the gym, where the youth grow their own food. Kendall points out the lettuce, peas, and herbs the kids have planted in raised beds here. It's a beautiful little garden. The sound of big rig whooshing by on the other side of the fence only makes it feel more like a sanctuary.
Elizabeth Kendall of the East Oakland Boxing Association describes the gym as “a safe space.” She says they don’t have to worry too much about “all the different dangers that are associated with some parks” when the kids come here to play.
The whole place is an oasis, a place where kids can come for free and do just about everything kids like to do. The East Oakland Boxing Association manages to keep this all patched together and moving by writing grants and receiving help from foundations and community members. When Stanley Garcia first opened his gym back in 1984, he wanted to do much more than make great boxers, he wanted to make great human beings and the gym grew to meet the demands of the youth. And so when Nina Knogen, the program’s art director looks around the kids painting and reading, she sees something that you might not associate with a boxing gym.
“I always feel like this place right here is like our living room,” she says. “When Chef Gerard cooks here, it's like he's cooking for his own kids and I treat the kids the way my mom treats me, kindness and love.”
Kindness and love may seem like an odd thing to combine with boxing, but for the kids, it works. In a way it’s been the kids who have designed this place. The adults have just followed their direction trying to meet the needs when the children say they need access to a computer or a place to make art or after school snacks. And this eclectic combination allows other unlikely combinations to work as well. Coaches say that sometimes, even rival gang members will come into the gym, drop their colors and work out peacefully, side by side.