Developing Boxers and Respect
In a little makeshift gym at San Francisco de Asis, the lives of youth are transformed. The children show up for boxing training and practice. And there is plenty of sparring, jumping rope and shadow boxing. But before they even perfect a right-hook, they walk away with self-love, respect for others and social skills that advance their emotional maturity and personal growth.
The boxing and life skills come courtesy of husband/wife volunteers Ray and Leticia Sustaita, who have been volunteering for the boxing program for about year. They show up Monday through Friday from 5:30 to 8:30 each night, working with 35 to 40 youth. Some they know, others are drop-ins who want to join the other kids, ages 7-18.
“We are able to help kids that don’t have a lot of opportunities, Ray Sustaita, said. “We try to make a difference in their lives by letting them know that someone cares about them.”
The Sustaitas became involved with the sport when their daughter, Annalicia, age 17, took up boxing. Her interest in the sport came after a junior-high bout with bullying and suicidal thoughts. When Analicia was in junior high she weighed 190 pounds, at 5-foot-3, and was bullied by her classmates about her weight.
“They would tell me that I was worthless, a disgrace to the school and that I should go kill myself,” Analicia said. “In the hallways they would call me butterball. One day this kid sat in front of me at lunch and he called me a fat sumo wrestler.”
Analicia spent the following summer running, swimming and eating lighter. She dropped her weight to 125 pounds. She started boxing to help maintain her new weight, but each time she boxed, her feelings of self-worth soared. “When I got done sparring, my confidence went up and up and up. I thought, ‘I can do this, I’m going to keep trying.’”
Now 17, the Garland High School student is the 2015 Youth Girls Welterweight Champion after her win at World Nationals, and will represent the United States at the World Boxing Championship in Taipei, Taiwan in May.
Her long term goals include boxing in the Olympics, and going to a college where they have a women’s boxing program and a strong nursing school, such as Notre Dame.
While she pursues these personal goals, she carves out time to help the younger boys and girls who find their way to the gym. “We have new kids come in all the time,” she said. “When they walk in, we get them started and teach them everything. They like to watch me spar, their eyes light up.”
One of those young admirers is Edgar Ochoa, 11, who joined the gym for fitness and friendship.
“Kids have been telling me I was fat and I wanted to prove them wrong, “ he said. I’ve been running, jumping rope and working the bags. It helps a lot. I get to work out with other kids so it’s fun.”
Ochoa has lost 20 pounds in five months, and he looks forward to honing his skills so he can one day compete in boxing tournaments. During training with Coach Ray, Ochoa delighted at taking punches into Ray’s padded hands.
“When we praise him, he glows and smiles,” Ray said. “He’s not the same kid who first walked in that door. He’s happy now.”
Letticia said hearing about Ochoa getting bullied about his weight was heartbreaking, but she doesn't want the kids to hold on to bitterness. She teaches them instead to take out their anger during the workout and then leave it behind. “We always tell the kids no matter how someone treats you, respond with kindness. Let the anger out on the bags,” she said.
Juan Nava, 15, knows about anger. He’s an experienced street fighter and says he was a “bad kid” who turned his life around after nearly getting shot.
“I got into a fight, and later their cousins came after me and they had a gun. I prayed right there and someone came out of a nearby house and the cousins left,” Nava said. I needed to turn my life around. I met Coach Ray, and he understands my background. He doesn’t judge me. He tries to improve my standards and he builds me up.”
Now Nava, who puts his street-fighting skills to good use in the ring, is working toward winning bouts in boxing tournaments so he can become known in the boxing world. He said he’s proud of himself and has made his mother happy.
“She comes into my room and gives me a big hug,” he said. “She says she is proud of me for making this big change.”
Ray said he too is proud of Nava and looks forward to his progression as a boxer and as a contributing member to society.
Helping youth like Nava learn respect for themselves and others has been a surprise benefit to coaching at the church, Ray said.
“All the kids are very well behaved. They accept everyone who walks in the gym without reservation, he said. “They are very accepting and that’s what they learn here, life lessons. I’m always thankful for God giving us the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life.”