NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — A rookie cop once had a dream to use boxing to get kids off the streets.
Decades later he’s changed thousands of lives.
“Honestly, I can say if it wasn’t for this place, for this gym, I don’t know where I’d be,” Michael Ayeboafo told CBS2’s Otis Livingston.
The gym he’s talking about is the Park Hill Boxing Club on Staten Island.
“If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think this would be here,” Henry Clare said.
Clare is talking about Pat Russo, a retired cop with a passion for boxing and a mission to save as many kids as he could from being swallowed up by the streets.
“Look around this gym. You see black kids, you see Hispanic kids, you see white kids. The only two colors that are in this gym is the blue corner and the red corner,” Russo said.
The program is called Atlas Cops And Kids Boxing. It runs with funding and support from boxing great Teddy Atlas, but it was, and still is the dream of founder Pat Russo.
“It’s a terrific feeling to be able to change a kid’s life,” he said.
In his 30 years running the free program, he’s helped tens of thousands of kids lace up their gloves — and more importantly — get their life on track. He started it when he was just a rookie.
“We were told as rookie cops, go out there, find out what the problems are plaguing the community and work with the community to fix it,” he said.
Russo took on street gangs to save who he could.
“We went out on the street and said, ‘you guys want to fight, you want to be tough guys, come to the gym, come to the gym,” he said.
Those who did found a safe haven and learned the discipline of sport. They even got to spar with cops. The gym also provided an incentive to do well in school — a 90 average on a report card earns the kids $50.
“It’s emotional. My kids are going to look at this tape and say, ‘I knew you were going to cry,” he said. “Ask any coach who gets teary eyed when they talk about their kids moving on, becoming better people, and that’s what we do. That’s what the program does, it doesn’t make a boxer, it makes a better person out of them.”
Right now there are about 700 kids in the program’s three location. Two of them have fought in the Golden Gloves.
It only costs about $50,000 a year to operate the boxing gyms — not a lot of money, but there’s always a scramble for funding.