Fighting the Odds
Boxing/MMA programs keep teens off the streets, out of trouble
Nineteen year-old George Dominguez used to spend his free time on the streets, and has had more than a few brushes with local law enforcement as a result.
“I used to get in too much trouble,” he confessed. “I used to always be chased by police for doing bad things.”
This summer, Dominguez, a rising senior at Parkland, has found another way to spend his time. He’s one of several teens who are serving as junior counselors at David Villada’s Beating Up Bad Habits boxing camp. The camp, which Villada founded two years ago has two purposes: to get kids off the streets and out of harm’s way and to teach them a positive outlet for the negative emotions they may feel.
“I started sponsoring a couple of kids from my neighborhood because I saw how much trouble they were getting into,” Villada said. “…I got to a point where I enjoyed it. I liked seeing the kids compete, so I started the program.”
The youth train with a team of volunteers in the mornings, eat lunch at one of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools summer feeding program sites, and take part in a variety of activities – from miniature golf to swimming – in the afternoons. Villada, Spanish translator for Visions Behavioral Health, funds the bulk of the program out of his own pocket.
“They’ve got something to live for, you know?” he said. “They come in day and day out, wholehearted.”
Dominguez was one of Villada’s first protégés, but said the lessons Villada was trying to teach him didn’t sink in the first time around.
“Before (when) I used to come, I used to be a lot in the streets,” Dominguez said. “I preferred the streets, so I quit.”
The School of Hard Knocks didn’t live up to his expectations, and so when Villada offered him a chance to come back to the program as a junior counselor, this time Dominguez said he took it, no questions asked. Working with other youth has been a positive experience for him, said Dominguez, whose younger brother David is also involved in the program.
“It helped me get out of trouble,” he said of the program. “It helped me get my mind into other stuff. It helped me get off the street.”
The camp is held Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Champion MMA and Boxing Club. The facility is owned by former boxer Kerry Smith, co-founder of Rings of Dreams Promotions and a friend of Villada’s. Beating Up Bad Habits is designed specifically for youngsters who, like Dominguez, have already begun to travel down negative or dangerous paths in their lives, Villada said.
“They’re good kids but they don’t have the proper supervision, so they try to follow their peers,” he remarked. “Some of these kids are gang bangers. At young age, they’re gang banging, and that’s not right. Instead of having them out there doing that, I’ve got them in here and I talk to them and tell them, ‘You’ve got to stop doing such and such. It’s not right.’”
Many of the youth in the camp have a parent who has been deported or incarcerated, and some have been involved with the legal system themselves, Villada said. A handful of his clients are mandated by Forsyth County’s Reclaiming Futures Juvenile Drug Court to attend the program daily. Villada knows firsthand the many pitfalls that can befall his clients as urban youth.
“God has me here for a reason – I’ve been through it,” said the Bridgeport, Conn. native. “…I was a troubled kid. I was from the inner city. My mama worked all day and all night so I was left to roam the streets and follow what my friends were doing.”
For 18 year-old Da’Quan Blair, serving as a counselor is a chance to give back to youth who have faced the same challenges that he’s weathered in his own life.
“When I was younger, I used to be in the same troubles as those kids – going into group homes and foster care and stuff like that – so I can relate to them,” said Blair, who is training in boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA) at the facility. “…I get to express my feelings or whatever. I learned how to like, work with people and stuff like that.”
Philadelphia native Rahman Gardner volunteers at the camp three times a week, training some of the older boys in MMA and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
“They’re doing very well because they’re young, so they’re like sponges, and they want to learn,” he related. “A couple of them have aspirations of competing, so they’re really trying hard.”
Gardner and Villada worked together in the mental health field, and many of their former clients attend the camp, which costs $25 a week. Gardner, who now works as a school bus driver, said the youth are more respectful, more focused and more disciplined as a result of the camp.
“I like seeing the results for kids who I know have been through hard times and have had issues. I like to see the positive expression on their faces. I like to hear from David that they’re doing better in their neighborhoods and showing more respect for their parents,” Gardner said. “It is a wonderful program. It would have been nice if there had been something like this when I was a teenager.”
Fifteen year-old William Toribio was referred to the program by the drug court, and mandated to stay in it until he can test negative for marijuana use.
“At first I wasn’t like coming every day,” the rising freshman said of the camp. “Then I got the hang of it and I kind of liked it, so I started coming every morning.”
Toribio, one of four children, said the program is helping him to kick some of his negative habits.
“During the week, I don’t come out (in the streets) like I used to. I be too tired. I be exhausted,” he said. “I don’t smoke like I used to. If I smoke, it won’t let me do my exercise right.”
Boxing has served as a positive emotional outlet for him as well, Toribio said.
“Sometimes when I get mad, I prefer to come to the gym and take all my anger out through boxing,” Toribio said, noting that at one time, his frustrations would’ve been played out in street fights. “I’ve been in and out of detention. I’m trying to go in a different direction now.”
To donate to Beating Up Bad Habits or to enroll your child in the after school program, which is offered weekdays from 5-8 p.m. During the school year, contact Villada at 305-720-1238 or visit the gym, 2500 Old Lexington Rd.