Facing a group of 40 adults and kids of mixed races and backgrounds, a seven-year-old boy demonstrated the proper way to jab, pivot, punch, bob and weave at a Be First Boxing class last week.
“If a seven-year-old can do it right, you can do it right,” Director of Training Fred Spry Jr. instructed the class before sending them into another challenging round of punching and ducking.
Spry Jr.’s father, a professional boxer of the same name, started this non-profit boxing program about forty years ago to help troubled city youth learn endurance, strength, confidence, strategic thinking, hard work and dedication from positive role models.
Three years ago Spry Sr.’s protégés, now grown men, revived the boxing club that had been defunct for 20 years, in order to give back to the community in his honor. Today, volunteer-run Be First Boxing has grown into a thriving community program that teaches youth responsibility, and that has helped bridge a gap between Peekskill’s diverse cultures. It does so at half the cost of traditional gyms.
“They trained everyone and instilled in them strength, endurance, work ethic – and that we carried into life,” Westley Artope, Executive Director of Be First, said of Spry Sr. and Walter Corney, another old-time Peekskill coach.
Artope is one of several volunteer coaches, most with professional boxing experience, who spend six nights a week running intensive boxing classes out of the current location at 1137 Main Street. The club is a registered USA Metro Boxing club, has about 70 members ages 7 to 30, and is growing every week, Artope said. They keep the costs as low as possible, but charge members a monthly fee to cover insurance for the children involved and for overhead.
“Boxing is life changing because you have to dig down to go past the point that your body wants go,” Atrope said.
“If you can do this you can do anything,” one coach yelled to his Wednesday night class as they groaned and strained to do multiple sets of reverse crunches.
Spry Jr. and John McCrae, another coach at Be First, were stars of Spry Sr.’s original team in the late 60s. Several years ago, they joined Artope and his wife Clara Montague when they decided to revive the club.
The Atropes were dedicated to the program because they saw a significant need to engage the city’s youth with positive, character building activities. But they were also motivated after becoming victims of a racially charged crime in 2007.
The Artopes, both African-American, found a cross burned on their front lawn one day after their son had been in an altercation with a white girl at school. The girls’ 21-year-old brother was later arrested for aggravated harassment and Atrope’s son transferred schools.
“I know the promotion of tolerance is important,” Artope said, explaining that the incident made him want to work to bring people together. “This club was built on diversity.”
The couple worked for years to reach an agreement with the city, find space and start the program. They have moved from the o the to the current location, a city-owned building that is marked for demolition this year for the construction of a Central Firehouse. Westley is actively seeking more permanent alternatives. The City of Peekskill pays for the cost of utilities and is allowing Be First to rent its current space from the city for free.
While the majority of the coaches are black (Ben (J.R.) Green, Mike Williams, Billy Blandon and Jim Chicatano all volunteer as coaches) members are of mixed backgrounds and Latino instructors have recently started volunteering. Belle Ritter, a Latino dance instructor from the Bronx, has been volunteering and will start Zumba classes this weekend. She also enjoys bridging cultures at Be First.
“There is an influx of Latinos here and we want to make sure they feel like family,” Ritter said. “We see the Latinos looking in the window and tell them, ‘it’s ok, come in!’”
Marco Serrano, a pro-boxer from Mexico who has lived in Peekskill for 11 years, was also there helping out last week. He said he was glad to discover Be First on his way to work at BASF a few weeks ago and he now volunteers his time and helps with the language barrier.
“But we all speak the same language when we are boxing,” Artope said. At last week’s boxing class, which the author of this article attended, about half the class was Latino.
A young Latino man who spoke some English could not explain where exactly to place your feet and how to tuck your chin to properly jab, but eagerly instructed me by demonstrating.
At the end of class the group of 40 held hands in a circle where Artope told everyone to carry the lessons they learned in class and their hard work into their everyday lives.
Exhausted children and adults, who had moaned and groaned throughout the last round of sit ups, smiled and thanked their coaches. Some stayed behind to keep practicing.
“I definitely feel like I can take on the world,” said 28-year-old Tylecia Mann, a Peekskill resident who has been boxing three times a week for over a year. She started to get fit but is now considering entering competitions, something the coaches push their students to do.
“I promised to give the later part of my life to the youth and Peekskill community,” Spry said. “I feel really good to be a part of a program my dad started.”
The club will hold a n honor of Spry Sr. this Saturday, Feb. 4 at 1 p.m. The event will feature hip-hop dancers, rap artists, comedian Jimmy Mack and other events.
Be First Boxing charges a $35 monthly fee for adult membership and $20 fee for child membership. To learn more visit 1137 Main Street one weekday night or contact Artope at firstname.lastname@example.org or caling 646-772-7447.
Be First Boxing is always accepting donations, monetary donations can be made to Be First Boxing Organization, P.O. Box 775, Peekskill, NY, 10566.
They are also always in need of USA Boxing certified boxing gloves, head gear, cups and protective chest gear for women.