It’s been five years since Rico Gonzalez turned the two-car garage behind his Wheeling home into a boxing gym. From day one, Gonzalez has stressed education and demanded discipline. Boxing was just his tool. Overcoming street influence was always more important than outlasting an opponent. Now that small garage, home of thriving competitors in every weight class, is not big enough. With the help of the Wheeling and Prospect Heights police departments and Omni Youth Services, Gonzalez started the New Heights Boxing Program in February.
Area social workers and school police liaisons recommended 20 kids, ranging from 11 to 17 years old; that they thought would benefit most from Gonzalez’s unorthodox teaching methods. “We wanted to create an alternative for kids during these critical years that works against the glamour of gang life,” Prospect Heights police officer Al Steffen said. “Rico brings the street cred that we don’t have. He grew up here and was able to escape the gang lifestyle through boxing.” The 12-week, skill-building program is free. If the kids keep their grades up and stay out of trouble, they can continue to train with Gonzalez, who was a championship-caliber boxer himself, and start competing inside the ring. They gather at Wheeling High School three nights each week, and OMNI counselor Josue Canchola said attendance is already high. “The kids have really shown up,” Canchola said. “They’ve been very motivated and willing to learn.”
If this positive momentum continues, Gonzalez and his supporters will try to move into a permanent location. “Rico’s lending his life experiences and he’s really showing the kids that there is a positive path to follow,” Canchola said. Gonzalez originally built his garage ring because, like himself as a child, many kids cannot afford corporate gym fees. And he said the boxers that need this discipline the most — the ones who are battling drug and gang influences — deserve this opportunity. Gonzalez has worked with troubled kids in the past. “One was very slow at first, and I could see him getting into better shape,” Gonzalez said back in November. “You can’t be on drugs and box. “I know what these guys did last night because of how they fight in the morning,” he continued. “Whatever you do outside the ring, you’ll pay for it in the ring.” Gonzalez’s movement started with just four punching bags and one homemade 12-foot ring. And he’s done it all because of his passion for boxing and his community.
Article by Charles Berman