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Community News: Southeast

HUNTINGTON PARK : Youth Program Packs a Punch

September 05, 1993|MARY HELEN BERG

A larger-than-life-size portrait of professional fighter Julio Cesar Chavez hangs over the sparring ring like a patron saint. Below the painting, boys as young as 8, too short to jab at the speed bags, stand on boxes to work out.

At the Huntington Park Police Boxing Club, the Chavez painting looms as a daily reminder that a child from an urban barrio can become a champ.

The gym at 6414 Rugby Ave. opened in 1988. The boxing program, sponsored by the Police Department, was created in part to improve community relations after two officers were convicted of using a stun gun during the interrogation of a teen-age burglary suspect. Although that incident may have faded in the memory of residents, the program's goal of keeping youths off the streets and out of gangs remains clear.

When Salvador Casillas, 17, came to the gym four years ago, he was destined for trouble and was "at that point where nobody wanted him," recalled Josie Rivera, the club's business manager.

In the city boxing program, where those caught swearing are told to drop to the floor for push-ups, Casillas found focus and discipline. In May, he won the bantamweight title in the California Golden Gloves tournament and dreams of being a professional boxer.

"He was going toward that way (joining a gang)," said Sonny Rivera, Casillas' coach and Josie Rivera's husband. "But now he won't go that way because he knows what he has to lose: his future."

Despite his age, Casillas is a freshman at Huntington Park High School. He admits to being a bad student and says that without his coaches' encouragement, he would have dropped out long ago.

"I'd probably be in the streets doing something bad," said Casillas, who weighs in at 106 pounds. The Riveras teach the young boxers that education is as important as a good uppercut. The 200 Latino youths, 8 to 18 years old, who frequent the gym come from some of the toughest neighborhoods in South Gate, Huntington Park and Compton. Anyone dressed like a gang member is turned away at the door.

"We used to come in with the (Los Angeles) Raiders' caps," Casillas said. "And they'd say not to come like that because if you have enemies outside, they could come and do something to the gym."

Not every boy at the club wants to join the U.S. Olympic team or turn professional, but each seems to take his workout seriously. On a recent afternoon, 40 had come to wrap their hands in cotton gauze and work the body bags, lift weights and shadow-box in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors. No one was idle. More than a dozen trophies in the club's small office are a testament to their hard work.

"We have one kid who's been here two years and he's hardly said a word," Josie Rivera said. "But he's here every day and that's what counts. I draw them in."

The program has a budget of $75,000 and is funded with Community Development Block Grant money. The gym is open from 3 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. During off hours, Josie Rivera arranges field trips for the young fighters, taking them to professional bouts and holiday parties. She said she wants to start a tutoring program on the upper floor of the gym's old brick building.

Rivera admits that boxing has its critics, but she defends her program as an effective tool in diverting youths from gang life.

"A lot of people don't like boxing, but kids get hurt in any sport," she said. "If they come in here and work out, they're too tired to go on the streets at night."

"We need a variety of approaches to the gang problem," said Huntington Park Mayor Ric Loya. The boxing program "is not for everyone, but it's a good program for kids who aren't going to go hang out in libraries after school."

For Casillas, the approach is on the mark. Sonny Rivera said Casillas has "got the style, he's got the moves, he's got the heart it takes to win in this game."

Casillas hopes to make his professional debut within 18 months. After that, he said, there's just one goal: "To be a champion."

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