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Downtown Boxing Gym. Photo via Facebook.

As Khali Sweeney travels to represent his beloved Downtown Boxing Gym, one thing always remains on his mind: That education is a keystone to moving Detroit forward.

Actually, it’s the only thing Sweeney thinks about as he and Downtown Boxing Gym Executive Director Jessica Hauser move through the crowds on Mackinac Island. They’re here to listen to the conversations about Detroit schools, to meet new Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti and to spread the work about their non-profit boxing gym.

If he had one message to share at the Mackinac Policy Conference, Sweeney said he would shout it from the rooftop of the Grand Hotel: Detroit needs to invest deeply in education and its children.

“Education is the most important thing in our community right now. If we don’t educate our community, they’ll fall behind. They’ll get left out. They can’t take a part in a new Detroit or a new Michigan if they’re not educated,” Sweeney said.

“If you look at statistics, and you see the successful communities, it will say things like: Two people in the household hold a degree or have graduated from high school. But if you look at our zip code, few people hold a degree. Few people have graduated from school; only 30 percent the last time I looked have graduated from high school. People with education have access to better jobs. They’re in a financial better situation. Without an education, you’re not going to survive.”

Photo via Downtown Boxing Gym

This is the first whirlwind experience at Mackinac Policy Conference for Hauser and Sweeney, Founder and CEO of the Downtown Boxing Gym, a free after-school academic and athletic program for Detroit students ages 8 through 18. Since 2007, Sweeney has worked with hundreds of students who want to expand their minds as well as their muscles.

At the Downtown Boxing Gym, the rules are books before boxing. There are tutors, mentors and volunteers who work with the students each day. Over the last 10 years, 100 percent of participating students have graduated from high school.

The program includes computers, fiber optic training, a music studio, a learning kitchen for culinary classes, a library, tutoring and testing in all major subjects, college and career readiness and a variety of enrichment programs in addition to boxing and athletics.

Moreover, there is a huge waiting list to get into the program. And to Sweeney and Hauser, that means the need for quality education, quality after-school programs and quality investment in educational institutions has never been greater.

“I was inspired with what (Dr. Vitti) was talking about,” Hauser said. “Actually, everything he said is what Khali has implemented into the program. It’s reinforcing that our model works and it’s what needs to happen to ensure the success of our kids.”

Sweeney said he was pleasantly surprised so many people were familiar with the Downtown Boxing Gym, its purpose and its program.

“That sends me back home with the message to keep doing what I’m doing because people are taking notice of it. There’s a need in our community – we have a waiting list of 800 kids. They want to be there. They want the support,” Sweeney said.

Ed. Note: If you’re looking for more with Khali Sweeney, he was a guest last year on our Daily Detroit Happy Hour podcast. Check it out here.

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