Credit: Jiayue Yu

The rhythmic thwap thwap—thwap thwap of a fist knocking a speed bag reverberates down the stairs of the Beautiful Zion Missionary Baptist Church in West Englewood before even reaching the area the Crushers Club boxing gym has called home for the past two years. Collages of photos line the stairwell leading to the space, showing young boys—their little boxing gloves framing their baby faces—next to their more seasoned, teenaged mentors—muscles gleaming with sweat, sometimes mean-mugging the camera.

Started in 2012, the club has come a long way from just a few kids using a makeshift gym to around 40 boys who come in regularly to spar in the ring. From 4 to 7 PM, five days a week, the space—with its low ceilings and multicolored walls covered in affirmations like “Only God can” and “In here your voice is heard”—provides an alternative to gangs and street crime for boys ages seven to 18. Some are kids from the neighborhood. Others have previously spent time in juvenile detention. But all are welcome here. There are rules, though: gang affiliations are left at the door, and cursing will be punished with a dollar or 25 push-ups.

Crushers Club founder Sally Hazelgrove, 54, moved to West Englewood from Uptown in 2000, raising her own family there until last year and starting the club after a decade of volunteering for the Evening Reporting Center, a community-based alternative to detention for juveniles, and getting to know gang members living in the Harold Ickes Homes. Her aim was to create a space that helped boys find identity, community, and love without gang affiliation, a space for them to play and be kids in a neighborhood that often forces them to grow up quickly. Last year there were 40 homicides in the area. This year there have been four so far.

“Socialization, I feel, is an important aspect that a lot of people don’t address,” Hazelgrove says. “We can have lots of programming, but when you go outside, everything is dangerous, and a lot of times the only socialization is the gang structure.”

Because of its model, many of Crushers Club’s members have found incredible success in the ring. Ivry Hall, 16, and Isiah Cook, 20, spar with some of the other teens, black head gear protecting him from their punches. They trade hits and combos, Cook’s golden gloves a blur as he rains down a flurry of blows on his 14-year-old mentee. Jab, jab, hook.

Hall and Cook recently competed in Chicago’s Golden Gloves tournament, where Hall emerged as the champion of the 165/Novice weight and class. Cook, who fought under 165/Open, made it to the semifinals.

But they don’t let their current status in Chicago’s boxing world go to their heads.

“I don’t train to say I won the Golden Gloves,” Hall says. “It really didn’t mean anything to me. I’m happy, but I want more. When I win I feel good, but I know that there’s more that I have to do to get better.”

They still come back to the gym Monday through Friday to mentor the younger kids who come in, and try to teach them that there’s more to life than gangs or acting out in school.

“It’s better to guide [the kids] than to tell them,” says Hall as the kids start to file in. “If you want to be a role model, you gotta inspire them to do good.”

Hall says he hasn’t always been a role model. When he was younger, he says he “was into everything”—gang activity and theft for the most part, he says. His mother died in 2012, and after that he didn’t attend school for a while, choosing instead to hang out with friends. Now, Hall is on the honor roll at Tilden High School, is a finalist for a “Hero of the Hood” award, which spotlights teens, adults, and programs from economically disadvantaged areas, and is acting as a big brother to the new kids, giving them advice, for example, on how to deal with being bullied at school.

Beyond tournament wins, Crushers Club is also seeing results in other areas of its kids’ lives. Hazelgrove says that 90 percent of the 200 or so boys who have been through the program have improved their academic performance, 98 percent have stayed off probation, and only 10 percent are rearrested. (These statistics come largely from her talking to probation officers and keeping track of kids’ progress herself.)

Hazelgrove wants to expand—she’s thought of having a second Crushers Club site in Englewood or one in Austin, another neighborhood that has been riddled with violence, but she can’t move—she’s invested here, and leaving West Englewood and the second family she’s created isn’t something she wants. That doesn’t mean she won’t kick them out if they’re misbehaving or getting in trouble at school, but she always sticks by them, always welcomes them back.

“No one is born wanting to be a murderer, a drug dealer, a gangbanger,” Hazelgrove says. “These are the cards they’ve been dealt, but there is greatness and good things in them, and they just need an environment. These are not adults, and they deserve a chance.”   v