FOX 32 NEWS - In one of Chicago's roughest, gang-infested neighborhoods is a ring of hope that is teaching young men how to dream and fight for their futures.
It's a dream that took a woman from a comfortable, Northside, upper middle class life to the heart of Englewood where crime, poverty and gangs have chased away hope for so many. But with passion and purpose, this one woman is training young men how to beat their environment.
“I just have a dream, to be honest, of changing the life of every young man engaging in gang activity,” said Sally Hazelgrove, Founder and Executive Director of Crushers Club.
Several dozen young men, ages seven through 18, are jumping rope and shadow boxing as they warm up in the upstairs of a church at the corner of 64th and Loomis. It’s a place where they can step off the dangerous streets and into the ring. Under the watchful eye of Hazelgrove, they are learning boxing and a whole lot more.
It was a dream that took roots seventeen years ago when Hazelgrove started volunteering in the juvenile justice system to try and help boys in trouble.
“Over the years I started interviewing gang members and in 2004, I went out on the corners and just asked them what would get you off the block for a couple hours,” Hazelgrove said.
The overwhelming response: boxing. And what started in vacant lots and parks became Crushers Club four years ago. To better understand those she felt called to serve, Sally lived in Englewood for six years. She saw how hard life was for the kids.
“I saw that it was an identity crisis, and what I've seen is we're able to start to let them explore their own identity. You know a lot them, when I ask them what's your dream, that's one of the first questions I always ask, and so many of them are like, I just hope I live to be twenty,” Hazelgrove said.
One 19-year-old who joined the program early on is now the head trainer.
“I've learned a lot from Sally, I learned how to stay out of trouble, how to make better choices and just do good, be right,” said Dionte Robinson, Crushers Club Head Trainer
He learned how to box and dream of a future.
“Sally was my first boxing coach, yeah, so I got taught by a woman and I'm a Golden Glove champion, I won Junior Olympics, and I'm looking forward to going pro when I turn twenty,” Robinson said.
“I think hope is the number one thing that we provide, and that drives them,” Hazelgrove said.
Each day after school, kids get a ride to the club where they get a snack and a safe place to hang out.
“Despite the outer appearance or how some people may see them when they're outside, when they're here, you see them being kids and it's a wonderful thing,” said Chicago Police officer Luther Haynes.
He and his partner Dante Clay often hang out with the kids. The program has impacted them, too.
“It's made me a better police officer because now I'm more involved in the community,” Haynes said.
The Crushers Club program, funded through state partnerships, hires kids once they turn fourteen. They are taught accountability, right from wrong and eventually how to mentor younger kids.
“Giving them discipline with love, I call it, and a sense of belonging, a daily purpose, unconditional love and respect for sure,” Hazelgrove said.
As one young man walks up to Hazelgrove, she gives him a big hug.
“Hi baby, how you doing?” she asks.
“God has a reason for everybody to be on earth, I knew this was my reason” Hazelgrove said, reflecting on her life’s calling.
Seeing the impact this program has on kids is what keeps her going.
“When I have a kid that comes in here and he's only been here a week, and he's leaving and he's like, I love you Miss Sally. You know, and I'm like, I love you too, baby, right away, I hug them and I always tell them I love them,” Hazelgrove said.
Currently, nearly three dozen boys go to Crushers Club each day and Hazelgrove’s vision for 2017 is to be able to help another 100 young men on probation or in gangs put on the gloves and get their lives on the right track.