Fighting for a Better Life
At 1010 Ballard Street in Lansing sits a small warehouse connected to a dirt parking lot. Inside, framed pictures line the walls, and beyond the memories lies concrete. Heavy bags, double-end bags and speed bags dangle ready for action in front of two full-sized boxing rings, wooden benches lining their outer edges.
Reggae music fills the air as boxers trickle in and out. Some are college students, some much older, some much younger.
Coach Ali Easley walks around smiling and talking with his students, his friends. The boxing coach at both Michigan State University
(MSU) and Lansing Community College
(LCC), Easley’s also a professor of kinesiology at both schools and sits on the USA and Olympic Boxing
But perhaps most notably, he runs Crown Boxing Gym and is the co-founder and head of the Lansing non-profit Help A Willing Kid (HAWK) Foundation
, providing the area's underprivileged kids ages 8-18 a safe place to better their lives. Fighting for Change
“If kids are willing to get help, then we are more than willing to help them,” says Easley. “It’s a two-way street. We’re not going to force kids to do something they don’t want to do. But we’re looking for those with the inner drive to separate themselves from their situation at home.”
The kids in the program come from the neighboring Lansing area, learning about it from community outreach programs or from one of the H.A.W.K. members who talk about the program at school assemblies.
The gym hosts about 30 kids each evening and more than 300 kids each year. The program has multiple aspects: it gives kids a healthy, physical outlet by teaching them how to box; it teaches them life skills and provides tutors and homework help; it runs food and clothing drives; and includes alternative learning activities. Kids are also fed and often get rides home.
“We wanted to align ourselves with an athletic endeavor and we rested upon boxing because kids can train as a team, regardless of their height, weight, what have you,” says Easley. “Plus, we had my knowledge of the sport, the equipment, and the resources for it.” The Man, the Mission
Easley was born in Morocco, his father in the Air Force and his mother a traveling nurse. He moved to Pennsylvania when he was 11 years old. He started boxing at age 12, in a gym that was both nurturing and educational.
He traveled to Michigan to box at an event in 1991, where he met members of the Crown Boxing Gym. He moved to Michigan in 1992 after applying and accepting a job at LCC and agreeing to join the Crown Boxing team.
In 1996, an injury ended his boxing career. He left Michigan for a position at DePaul University
, but returned a year later after being offered a job at MSU, Crown Boxing and LCC.
Easley encouraged both universities to start a boxing program and, with a friend, founded HAWK in 1994. They soon settled the foundation's program into Crown Boxing Gym.
“After I left the gym [back in Pennsylvania] I realized how important it was to my childhood,” says Easley. “If my dad wasn’t around, my coach was. If I couldn’t talk to my dad about something, I could talk to my coach.”
The foundation is proud to have had successes. “One of our boys came here at the age of 10 and would just sit in the corner," says Easley. "Slowly, we were able to talk to him more and get him to talk back to us. He became more trusting and self-confident, and then he started to take advantage of all the program had to offer. A month and a half ago, he won the National Championship and then the World Championship."
"We had another boy who started coming at age eight," he continues. "Now he’s 21 years old, graduated high school, working a full-time construction job, and never got arrested or went to jail. I consider him to be a different kind of success story, because he was headed for a life in prison and what-not because of the environment he grew up in.”Driven by Volunteerism
HAWK's after-school programs are free, partially funded by an extra lab fee that MSU boxing students
pay to use the gym. Easley also donates the money he makes teaching those boxing classes to his program.
“When we travel to competitions with the kids, we pay for airfare, lodging, food, uniforms — they pay for nothing,” Easley says. “And once the kids are certified with USA Boxing, they are provided with full medical coverage with a $100 deductible — something many of the kids wouldn’t have because of their situations at home. Any time they attend an event by USAB, they are given a full physical, so they are looked at by a physician on a regular basis.”
“Funding is the single hardest part of running this program," he says. "We’ve been lucky enough to acquire some grants over the years, and the MSU classes bring in around $10,000 a year. We’ve also had some help from on-campus organizations and bigger sponsors, such as the Demmer Corporation
, but some of it comes out of our personnel’s own pockets,” he says. “We’re always looking for volunteers or donations.”
The foundation is a completely volunteer-based, with five permanent members: Easley, Trisha Nylund, Lacey Nye, Tom Nye and Phill Pappas. All have jobs outside of their work with HAWK.
“After I saw what was going on besides the boxing, I got interested and started coming around more often,” says Nylund, who met Easley while a student at MSU. She now teaches in the physical fitness and wellness department at LCC, and says the connection with the kids kept her coming back.
“The kids are definitely the best part," she says. "You get to see them experience things we take for granted. One of our little boys saw a cow for the first time during one of our trips. Another time, when we were stopped at a rest stop on our way to a competition, I asked how everyone was doing and one little kid said, ‘I feel so free.’”
Nylund fought competitively and trains with the kids and works the corner behind Easley during the fighters’ matches, often taking a special interest in the few girls that walk through their doors.
“The girls definitely confide in me," she says. "They tell me everything — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Some of the girls have me help them with problems at school while others talk about their family.”Creating a Team
Another member of the team, 24-year-old Phill Pappas has been helping at Crown Boxing for five years. He took the class through MSU and then joined the MSU Boxing Team, where he served as captain in 2005-2006.
“After I got injured, there was no chance I’d walk away," he says. "So while I fought sporadically, I started finding other ways to help out. I would drive the kids to and from the gym, help with the fundraising projects, travel with them. And then I started taking more things off of Coach’s overloaded plate.”
Even though Pappas currently holds three jobs, he still tries to find time to be at the gym five days a week.
“I fell in love with the sport at age 15," he says. "But down here, it’s family. I’ve seen kids come and go and stick around, and it’s the people here that add the character. It’s the character of the family that keeps you coming back.”
Ruben Robelin, a 20-year-old MSU student, has been helping at Crown Boxing Gym for about a year. He started boxing in Grand Rapids and longed to get back into the sport while studying accounting at MSU. Now he boxes and travels with the kids.
“I love everything about the gym," says Robelin. "I love boxing and being a mentor to the kids. They have their ears and eyes open to everything, so they just need a good example to follow."
Robelin won the Michigan Golden Gloves
competition in April and is now focusing on getting his undergraduate degree and possibly going professional after graduation. Either way, he plans to stick around Crown Boxing.
“Coach always helps us if we need help, whether it’s with tutoring and classes or just to talk. It’s a really nice gym in all respects — community and boxing,” Robelin says. The HAWK Foundation is always looking for volunteers or donations. Go to www.helpawillingkid.org to find out more or call (517) 367-0100.To receive Capital Gains free every week, click here.
Kelsey Turek is a senior at MSU majoring in English and creative writing. She took Coach Easley’s boxing class and gained more than class credit — she gained a new hobby, new friends and knowledge of a great local cause.
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
A boxer practices at the gym
Coach Ali Easley
A young participant waits for her turn in the ring
Kids work together on homework as part of the program
Hitting the bag
All Photographs © Dave Trumpie