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From Vice Lord Chiefs to Boxing Coaches!

Shadowboxing in the sun

Boxing program that gets kids off the streets can't find a home

July 17, 2010|By Rex W. Huppke, Tribune reporter
On the hot sidewalk outside a West Side elementary school, a dozen neighborhood kids — none more than 14 — line up, stand still and stare straight ahead, awaiting commands from a broad-shouldered man they dutifully obey.
"You flinched, you're out," Derek Brown shouts, pointing to one of his charges. "You too, I saw you move. You're out. Run the block, now. Run the block."
It's the middle of summer and Brown, once chief of a Lawndale faction of the Vice Lords, is trying to hold together a youth boxing program he started this past year at Penn Elementary School. The Tribune wrote about the program in May, detailing how Brown and another former gang leader, Chevez Fitzpatrick, have used boxing and their credibility on the streets to bring relative calm to the once-violent hallways of Penn.
The story generated international response. Readers across the city donated boxing equipment and volunteered to help. A Chicago restaurant owner pledged to feed the kids in the program once a month. And several churches and community centers outside Lawndale offered space for Brown and Fitzpatrick to conduct their boxing classes.
But to Brown's surprise and disappointment, no place in the Lawndale neighborhood opened its doors to the program. And since busing the kids somewhere else isn't feasible for his nascent organization, the summer version of the boxing classes, meeting four days a week, is relegated to the cracked concrete courtyard outside Penn.
"It's a shame," Brown said, sweat rolling down his brow during a recent class. "You've got to work the discipline into these kids, and that takes being consistent, and when we're just outside here, it's hard to be consistent. We've had a lot of rainy days, a lot of hot days when some of the kids just aren't going to come out."
According to the principal at Penn, parents of students and data from the school, Brown and Fitzpatrick had a swift impact on kids in the community. The pair began intervening with children at the school late last spring. Suspensions dropped from 46 in the 2008-09 school year to 13 in 2009-10.
Brown said he had as many as 80 kids show up to classes at the beginning of summer. But the numbers have dwindled. The Rev. Robin Hood, a longtime activist who advises Brown, said lack of a facility is making it harder for Brown and Fitzpatrick to reach youths, and he worries the good they've done so far might be eroding.
"It has cut down on our contact with these kids," Hood said. "We don't have a facility to keep them in. The less contact we have with them, the greater chance that they're going to find trouble."
Among the kids at a recent class was a young man whom Brown met several weeks ago at West 16th Street and South Lawndale Avenue. The teen had a gun in his hand. Brown persuaded him to get rid of it and try out the boxing program, told him the gun would lead him nowhere.
The thin, muscular teen has been at every boxing class since.
"If we can get 'em, we can teach 'em," Brown said. "They know me. Their parents know me. They listen to me. I know we can help."