How Khali Sweeney transformed the Downtown Boxing ...

How Khali Sweeney transformed the Downtown Boxing Gym to help Detroit students in the pandemic

“We need to get these kids somewhere safe and give them the resources that they need.”

khali sweeney

These days, Downtown Boxing Gym founder and CEO Khali Sweeney is at the gym on Detroit’s east side by 6:30 A.M to open for kids who come early in the morning, now that school is online. He stays each day until 7:30 P.M. 

Sweeney has always been an early riser, but COVID-19 has changed DBG. Previously an after-school program, it now runs all day so Detroit students have a safe place to learn as the pandemic continues. 

Sweeney, who grew up on the east side, started DBG in 2007. Since then, the boxing and tutoring organization has prepared Detroit-area students for success through education, athletics and mentorship. The program currently serves over 150 students, with a waitlist of 1,300. 100% of students in the program graduate high school.

DBG was working to expand their program to 250 kids when the pandemic hit. While the expansion had to pause, DBG didn’t waste time pivoting. Within one weekend, DBG transitioned into a virtual operation, Sweeney said. It wasn’t easy, but his staff were ready; he’d preached preparedness at DBG for years. 

“We call it ‘doomsday prepping,’” Sweeney said. “I want to make sure everything is covered.” 

Since March, DBG has focused on preventing learning loss, building emotional skills and addressing food and technology insecurity among students

When state guidance allowed their building to reopen this summer, DBG cut down on the number of kids in the gym at each time and moved most programming outside in the warmer months. Boxing was swapped for distanced workouts. Donations and grants helped them install touchless sinks and hire additional staff. 

And when working parents asked DBG to care for their children in the mornings, DBG said yes. They now serve 50 students virtually, as well 100 students on-site, split into groups who attend at different times.

Students at the Downtown Boxing Gym. Courtesy DBG
Students at the Downtown Boxing Gym. Courtesy DBG

The pandemic has been hard on Sweeney personally. He’s lost people in his circles, and been separated from loved ones. Mostly, though, he misses seeing all DBG kids in person. He’s looking forward to the day he can get all the students into the gym together again and continue expanding their programming. 

“There is no waitlist at the county jail. I promise you, I guarantee there’s no waitlist at that county morgue,” he said. “We need to get these kids somewhere safe and give them the resources that they need.” 

Until then, “as long as we can be a help to the people in the community… we’re going to continue to do that,” he said. 

Maya Goldman is a journalist who loves to write about her home state of Michigan. After graduating from the University of Michigan in May 2020, Maya interned for the Wall Street Journal and now writes full-time for Inside Health Policy. You can follow her work on Twitter at @mayagoldman_.