Youth Boxing Program Transforms Young Lives in Detroit

students outdoor reading

By: Shandra Martinez

Khali Sweeney and Jessica Hauser

Khali Sweeney and Jessica Hauser

In Detroit, Khali Sweeney’s Downtown Boxing Gym (DBG) is making a profound impact on the city’s children, providing them with opportunities and support he wished he had when he was growing up on the city’s East Side.

Sweeney’s personal journey, from struggling with illiteracy and overcoming the false narrative that he’d be “dead or in jail by 21,” to teaching himself to read and opening a free after- school program in 2007, is an inspiring story of resilience and determination.

Though not a traditional retailer, DBG recently joined the Michigan Retailers Association to take advantage of workers’ compensation benefits for its 50-person staff.

Jessica Hauser, the nonprofit organization’s executive director, emphasizes that the free out-of-school time program is academic-focused and driven by student voice. Students get a choice in their day-to-day activities, and they overwhelmingly choose science, technology, engineering, arts, math classes and so much more.

Some of the program’s youths are exploring entrepreneurship at Eastern Market by launching a juice business using produce they grew over the summer.

“Boxing was truly just the hook to get the kids in the door that Khali really wanted to serve,” Hauser said. “From there, we create hyper-personalized support for each of our 250 students that come in about three days a week. Every kid is getting support that is tailored to exactly what they need, exactly what their interests are.”

Students in the kitchen cutting fruitsPlans for expansion

The program is housed in a 27,500-square-foot facility, but it’s operating at capacity with a waiting list of more than 1,000 students. To meet the demand, DBG’s leaders are working to raise $50 million to fund a campus expansion, which will include a second building and increased capacity to serve more students.

The program’s remarkable success is evident through its 100% high school graduation rate and over a 90% college graduation rate. DBG’s participants consistently outperform their peers on international assessments.

“What these measurements tell us is that there’s significant transformation happening,” Hauser said. “There’s a huge focus here on creating a safe space to really let young people press on questions, dig deep on the narratives that are created for them by society. In our space, they can really unpack that and figure out who they are and who they are becoming.”

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $2 million research grant to Purdue University and the Downtown Boxing Gym to jointly study DBG’s STEAM lab program, which has inspired 90% of participating students to pursue STEM careers.

The longevity of the program is a crucial factor in its success, as consistent support makes a meaningful impact.
The program even extends its support to the families of students, encouraging them to apply for staff positions when available.

Success brings support, accolades

The program has a long list of financial supporters including foundations, corporations, private donors, and even some famous names like Eminem. The Library of Congress recently awarded the boxing gym the 2023 American Prize for “making a significant and measurable contribution to increasing literacy levels in the United States.”

For the transformation he has brought to hundreds of students, Sweeney was honored as a Top 10 CNN Hero and received a Governor’s Service Award for Mentor of the Year.

Hauser, who joined the organization 13 years ago, played a pivotal role in ensuring the program’s continuity when DBG was just getting off the ground and money was tight. Her dedication led her to leave her Ph.D. program and work with Sweeney full-time to make a significant impact.

“I was like, this is way too special for you to lose momentum. This place cannot close,” she remembers telling Sweeney. “I knew nothing about nonprofits, but I knew I could get involved and help tell the world that something incredible is happening here. And the rest is history.”

To learn more about DBG, visit

student peers into microscope