Striking a blow for kids

Young boxers must complete lots of training — including shadow boxing, jumping rope and heavy bag work — before they ever see the ring. Natalia Castaneda, left, blocks a jab from Janette Molina as the two put their boxing skills to use. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JILL RAGAR ESFELD

by Jill Ragar Esfeld
jill.esfeld@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — “It all started with this priest — Father Michael,” recalled former professional boxer Gerardo “Lalo” Robles.

“He’s the one that helped me out a lot in my teenage years,” he added.

Robles grew up in St. Joseph-St. Benedict Parish (now All Saints) in Kansas City, Kansas. It was Father Michael Hermes — who served first as associate, and then as pastor of the parish — he is referring to. 

Robles stayed out of trouble, he admits, because Father Michael kept him active — in youth groups, retreats and community service. 

“There were a lot of teachers involved in my life, too — coaches, other people who helped me,” he said.

Robles eventually left his hometown and spent 14 successful years as a professional boxer on the West Coast. 

But now he’s back — and giving back. 

“All these people being part of my life, changed my life,” he said. “So, I wanted to do something to change kids’ lives like other people changed mine.”

To that end, Robles accepted a position as the head boxing coach with the Police Athletic League of Kansas City, Kansas (PAL KCK), a new program transforming the lives of young people in his community.

When it first launched this February, PAL KCK had 75 youth signed up. Three months later, it has almost 400.

Building bonds through boxing

The PAL is a free program designed to build mentoring relationships in an athletic environment between police officers and underprivileged youth. 

The purpose is to teach discipline and responsibility while improving community relations. 

More than 700 PALs operate throughout the country, and boxing is traditionally the centerpiece of programming. 

PAL KCK has found its home in the former St. Mary Church, the first Catholic church built in Wyandotte County.

The beautiful Romanesque structure built in 1890 has sat vacant for many years; but now, every week night from 5-8 p.m., its doors are open. 

Instead of priests and pews, there are police officers and boxing bags. But the objective, said director Matt Tomasic, is the same.

“I believe,” he said, “that although what we’re doing is totally different from what was done here 130 years ago, ultimately we’re making a place of refuge for people, we’re building community.

“It’s the same mission.”

When Tomasic first brought Robles to St. Mary and told him it would be the home of PAL KCK, Robles was inspired.

“It kind of brought me flashbacks,” he said. “My old gym where I used to train in East L.A. was an old church.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is great, this is beautiful; it’s like it’s meant to be.’” 

Serving the old neighborhood

Tomasic is also from the neighborhood, growing up in St. John the Baptist Parish just a couple of blocks away.

“I served a lot of funerals and weddings at St. Mary 40 years ago,” he said. “There were four boys in my family, and we lived close.

“So, whenever they would have an altar boy cancel, the nun would call my mom and she would send one of us up.”

Tomasic, still a parishioner of St. John the Baptist, served on the Kansas City, Missouri, police force for 23 years and worked closely with the PAL program there.

“I saw firsthand the good work they do,” he said. “So, when I retired, we met with [Kansas City Kansas Police Chief Terry Zeigler] and talked about opening a PAL in Kansas City, Kansas.”

The program is based on a nine-round boxing workout. 

“So, the kids will come in,” explained Tomasic, “and they’ll jump rope for three rounds or six minutes with a one-minute rest in between.

“Then they’ll move to shadow boxing, then they’ll move to hitting the heavy bags, and they kind of work a circuit.

“The coaches go around and give pointers and critique.” 

Boxers putting in the time and effort will eventually advance to competing against one another in the ring. 

In addition to boxing, PAL KCK has a community garden that includes beekeeping and, in the future, chickens.

Friday evenings the PAL provides art classes.

Tomasic is hoping to expand the current programming this summer and add a football clinic. But for now, he’s waiting on broadband so he can turn the church balcony into a computer lab.

“I think a statistic that was significant to me is that less than 30 percent of kids that live below the poverty level have access to the internet in their homes,” he said. 

Soon students will be able to complete homework before they start boxing. And those struggling in school will be required to spend time with a tutor.

A safe place to play

Two full-time Kansas City, Kansas, police officers are assigned to the PAL.

Officer P.J. Locke grew up in St. John the Baptist Parish and saw the opportunity to work with the PAL as a way to help improve his home community.

He knows firsthand that PAL is vital to meeting that goal.

 “It’s free and it’s a perfect environment,” he said. “The kids get exercise, they get discipline, they learn responsibility.

“And active hands with us are better than active hands out there on the street.” 

Tomasic agreed.

 “At the end of the day,” he said, “the boxing, the gardening, the beekeeping, that’s all great.

“But the reason we’re doing it is to get the kids in the door to be mentored.”

Tomasic often hears from parents in the community that they don’t want their children playing video games all day, but they’re afraid to send them outside in an area where crime is high.

PAL KCK is a perfect solution to that problem — nothing could be safer than a fitness program run by police officers.

And it gives officers an opportunity to build trust within the community.

“Because that’s what really solves crimes,” said Tomasic. “Good detective work is great, but without people trusting you and telling you what’s going on, you’re not going to get very far.”

Building trust

In the short time the program has been running, officers have seen youth who were once guarded around them opening up.

“Oh, for sure,” said Locke. “They know I’m a cop, because they’ve seen me in uniform up here. They see me carrying a gun up here. 

“But when they see me with them in a T-shirt and shorts, showing them how to punch, how to run, how to do jumping jacks, they start loosening up.

“They start feeling more comfortable with me.”

The positive results are already apparent.

“Every problem they’ve had here,” said Locke, “they’ve come up and told us about so we can stop it immediately, which is nice. 

“We’ve had kids talk about their problems at school, too, and talk about their problems at home. 

“And we’ve been able to steer them in the right direction.”

Many of the children participating in the program don’t have father figures and the guidance that often provides.

“We’re able to mentor them and guide them,” said Locke. “And not just as a police officer guiding them in the right direction, but we need to guide them spiritually also.”

Of course, PAL KCK is mostly about the sport of boxing — and positive results have already been seen in that area as well.

One of the PAL participants recently qualified for the 2019 USA Boxing’s National Junior Olympics, one of USA Boxing’s most prestigious national tournaments.

He’ll head to Wisconsin with Robles to compete next month. 

“And he’ll be the first one representing PAL KCK,” said Robles. “He doesn’t have a lot of fights, but he has a good trainer. 

“I’ve been there and done that.”

As the PAL gym becomes known throughout this neighborhood, it’s bonding the community in support of its youth and its police officers. 

“I’m surprised,” said Locke. “It’s grown exponentially faster than I expected. 

“Clearly, people want it. And it’s working!”

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