Chicago’s South Side rarely welcomes hope. Few would advise anyone to drive the streets of Englewood—which saw 40 homicides last year alone—but that’s precisely what Sally Hazelgrove does every week. Hazelgrove is the creator of Crushers Club, a boxing gym that’s rehabilitating Englewood’s youth, one punch at a time. Every weekend she takes to the streets, inviting young men to become members of her gym. There, her boys learn how to find a sense of belonging that encourages them to invest in their future and education, instead of the drug and gang culture many fall into by the time they reach middle school.
Just this past month, 63 violent crimes were reported in Englewood, with more than half of these occurring in the neighborhood’s streets—the breeding ground for the gang violence that these young men to juvenile detention centers, if not worse.
Hazelgrove embarked on her “life’s calling” to aid urban youth more than a decade ago after volunteering in alternative detention programs for juveniles. She felt a drive to work with young men, having herself faced struggles growing up. Soon she became a familiar face at court, testifying on behalf of the boys of Englewood. After seeing the lack of opportunities and recognizing the care she afforded her own children, Hazelgrove made it her life’s work to instill self-respect and purpose in kids easily written off as young criminals.
“All I kept thinking about was—what if it was my son?” Hazelgrove remembers. “I was appalled by the amount of young men I saw [in the juvenile justice system], and nobody advocated for them. These youth were not only dying on the streets, but the ones pulling the trigger.”
Hazelgrove realized that young men became members of these groups not because they were drawn to violence, but because gangs provided them with a network and sense of belonging missing from their family or schools. Hazelgrove believed the answer wasn’t to fight against gangs. Instead, if she could createa new community that would provide these boys with similar support systems and promote education instead of crime, she could repair Englewood.
She began talking to the boys she knew, asking them what they felt the neighberhood lacked. Their answer: a boxing gym. Hazelgrove moved to Englewood and, with her own funds, found a space to open Crushers Club. She put on boxing gloves for the first time and put herself in the ring.
“I started grabbing kids of the block and told them—let’s go box,” Hazelgrove recalled. Gradually the Club grew and gave the kids a sense of belonging. Hazelgrove became their mother figure and boxing coach.
In fact, the Crushers Club’s strength has nothing to do with boxing. Hazelgrove believes it is the gym’s model of ownership that ensures its success. Even though Hazelgrove is the project’s “architect,” as she likes to describe herself, she is not its leader. The boys are the ones who build the Crushers Club, and ensure that it continually renews itself. Hazelgrove is often the first person to entrust these young men with accountability—to each other.
Young members must do more than box to become part of the Crusher Club community—they must also stay out of trouble and attend school. The men are responsible for their own training, with older members mentoring younger ones, just as they would in a gang. Members train up to four days a week, preparing ultimately for amateur matches. The Club also features a Leaders Work Program that compensates Englewood’s young men with a paycheck for their guardianship and guidance of younger members.
To illustrate the complex dynamic, Hazelgrove recalls one young club member, Ivry, who entered the gym’s doors as a “foul-mouthed, at-risk gang member.” He had recently lost his mother and slowly began to slip into violence. Hazelgrove adopted Ivry in spirit, giving him particular care and attention at the club and asking his peers to keep a watchful eye on him at school. To this day, she still does Ivry’s laundry. Still, it wasn’t until the other young men of the community embraced him with empathy and support that Ivry overcame his obstacles. The anecdote still brings Hazelgrove to tears.
If the hope of connecting with youth isn't enough, the success of Crushers Club is there in the numbers. According to the Crushers Club website, it takes $85,000 to incarcerate one young man for a year, versus $5,000 to redirect his life in the Club. Hazelgrove hopes the Club’s methods and message will spread to the whole community, turning these young men from potential repeated offenders to active community members who might eventually create businesses in Englewood.
For example, the neighborhood currently has no sit-down restaurants. One idea on the drawing board is for the Club to open a restaurant, staffed by the young people of the neighborhood, to give families in Englewood a place to sit and enjoy a healthy meal.
By creating the Crushers Club, Hazelgrove gave the youth of Englewood more than just a reminder that someone cares for them. With her initiative to turn these young men into community leaders, she gave them something to care for.
Watch Hazelgrove talk about her experiences with Crushers Club this Thursday, January 15, in an exclusive Women In the World conversation held in Chicago. You can tune in and watch live at 9 AM EST on The Daily Beast.