Originally printed in the Chicago Sun Times
Even though coach Rico Gonzalez admitted that he was unsure how his New Heights Boxing Program would fair, his deep faith in boxing’s ability to positively influence kids’ lives never wavered. That’s why he turned the two-car garage behind his Wheeling home into a boxing gym five years ago. Gonzalez, himself, is living proof that the discipline and work ethic needed to succeed in the boxing ring provides a distinct alternative to the destructive influences of street life. And he said the boxers that need this discipline the most — the ones who are battling drug and gang influences — deserve this opportunity.
His slogan is “Sweat in the ring stops blood on the streets.” But when his small homemade ring could no longer fit the amount of kids that Gonzalez wanted to reach, he teamed up with Wheeling High School, Omni Youth Services and the Wheeling and Prospect Heights police departments. Area social workers and school police liaisons recommended 22 kids, ranging from 11 to 17 years old, that they thought would benefit most from Gonzalez’s unorthodox approach. On Monday (June 2), all but two of the participants graduated from Gonzalez’s seven-week, skill-building program. “I thought at least half might drop out, but the majority only missed one or two days,” Gonzalez said of the three sessions per week program at Wheeling High School. “We ended up having four kids with perfect attendance. “They ended up being a part of a team and they really learned from each other.” Christian Ramirez, a 16-year-old Wheeling High School student, was one of the four who never missed a session. He said it’s hard to relate to most adults, but it’s easier with Gonzalez because he has a similar background. “I’m proud I stuck with it,” he said. There was only one rule. If the kids kept their grades up and stayed out of trouble, they could continue to train with Gonzalez, who was a championship-caliber boxer himself. “We’re very happy with the way the program went,” Wheeling police Cmdr. Bill Stutzman said. “We will continue to monitor the kids and we want to continue the program. “Some of the kids have expressed interest in continuing, too.” Due to the success of the first-year program, organizers are trying to find Gonzalez a permanent home in the fall. “Actually, it was much better than what we thought, and now we’re trying to take it to the next level,” Prospect Heights police officer Al Steffen said. “We need to get Rico into a bigger place so he can do more.”
By CHARLES BERMAN – Chicago Sun Times