Police officers are winning the hearts and minds of inner-city youth by introducing them to athletics through the Police Athletic League national initiative. With cops as mentors, the program hopes to buffer impressionable teens from negative influences in their lives.
To honor their work, the OKC Charity Fight Night is luring boxing fans to the Coca-Cola Bricktown Events Center on Thursday for a fund-raiser for the Oklahoma City chapter of PAL. The night will feature a full fight card and appearances by former champions Sugar Ray Leonard and Sean O'Grady.
"The Police Athletic League is a juvenile crime prevention program that started back in 1992 with boxing," Capt. Brian Jennings said. "The goal of PAL is to provide kids with recreational activities and sports in high-crime areas to keep them away from gangs, criminal activity, drugs and the negative lifestyle they are exposed to."
The 18-year veteran of the police force took the reigns of PAL 15 months ago and said the fight night will be the first large-scale fund-raiser. The program has blossomed in recent years to offer a variety of sports and educational programs, thanks to the work of volunteers within the force, as well as donations.
In 2008, Capitol Hill boxer Juan "Alex" Saucedo became the national PAL boxing silver medalist. Jennings hopes to continue growing the program and raise enough funds to find a home for PAL.
"Right now, we don't have a facility to work out of for our basketball, boxing or other recreational facilities," he said. "We have to use public school gyms and other facilities, so we feel that our own facility would alleviate the efficiency problems."
The Oklahoma City chapter of PAL started with boxing as a way to help kids funnel the energies of youth into a positive, disciplined activity. O'Grady is also a longtime boxing announcer and said he's been watching notable fighters emerge from PAL for years, adding that Oscar de la Hoya was a product of a PAL program in Los Angeles.
"In your young adolescent years, you're looking for something to do, you have extra time, and if you don't channel that into something positive, you're going to get into a bad way," O'Grady said. "What PAL has done is it has given kids a direction in their lives."
This will be the third OKC Charity Fight Night, with previous special guests including Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes. Event coordinator Nicole Thomas' goal is to raise a minimum of $50,000 for PAL.
"They are a nonprofit and rely strictly on private donations and corporations," Thomas said. "They need a lot of help and haven't done a lot of fund-raising events. Not only are we raising money for them, but we are also raising awareness. So many people in Oklahoma City don't even know this organization exists."
ADVOCATE OF CHARITIES
Thomas said Leonard is a longtime advocate of charities directed at youth, and he quickly signed on to take part. O'Grady also eagerly agreed to help out, seeing the organization as a much needed outlet for young athletes looking for a way to learn the sport.
"So many kids that are good athletes get recruited by football, basketball, baseball, but there is no one out there recruiting for boxing," he said. "Here is an opportunity for young men and women who want that direction in their life to start something. I'm in the boxing business and people ask me all the time where to go for boxing. A PAL program would be a great place to start."
The lack of an entry point to the sport might prevent talented athletes from being able to learn the skills of the sport. O'Grady said that he benefited from familial ties to the sport that other athletes may not have.
"When I was a young man, my parents were in the boxing business, and when I wanted to become a boxer, it wasn't as hard for me to find a way," he said. "Had my parents not been promoters, I wouldn't have been able to do it unless I would have gone to PAL."
Lisa Lamb of Fort Worth will be one of the fighters in the ring. Although she'd wanted to fight since she was a little girl, she didn't have the opportunity. She didn't start lacing up the gloves until her husband began training their son. Now, as a professional boxer with a 4-1 record, she's seen the advantage that fighters with rich amateur records have over other pros.
"If you have a good amateur record, you can earn some good money, but if you're a woman just starting out, you aren't going to make too much," Lamb said. "To be honest, it's hard for a woman fighter to earn any money at all."
O'Grady thinks PAL and other boxing programs directed at youth will make it easier for young female fighters to get an introduction to the sport and carve out a living as a pro boxer. Lamb said many of the women that she sees in the sport are like her, starting to fight later in life.
VIE FOR A TITLE
Lamb is hoping to fight at least once every two months until she has the opportunity to vie for a title. The benefits of the sport have even bled over into the rest of her life, particularly mentally, since boxing is a sport of isolation.
"Boxing is a one-man sport, so if you can overcome that, you can overcome anything," she said. "It's not a team sport where if you get banged up, you can tag someone else in. When you are in the ring, it's just you and the trainer."
O'Grady thinks the discipline and self-reliance forged in the ring are valuable to youth looking for direction. It is also good for the sport, as the interest engendered early in life keeps the sport vital.
He also said there is another, perhaps more important element to the PAL program.
"The greatest thing for the kids and the community is that the policemen get to interact with the kids in such a way the kids see them as allies, heroes, someone to look up to," he said. "What an unappreciative job: You pull up in a cop car and everyone scatters. They are taught that as a kid: 'Cops are here, scatter!' They don't know that the cop is there just to make sure everything is OK." "Charles Martin