By SARAH HUFFMAN
Since the second week of July, a group of four young Bronxites have been meeting at St. Barnabas Hospital’s Healthplex in Little Italy on Thursday and Friday evenings for hour-long fitness and boxing classes. The classes are the latest initiative by St. Barnabas Hospital and the Bronx Rises Against Gun Violence (B.R.A.G.). cure violence program.
The classes are part of a B.R.A.G., 12-week, pilot program which will end in October. Norwood News spoke to David Caba, senior program director at B.R.A.G., on July 29 about the new initiative. He said it’s just one of B.R.A.G.’s many programs which helps young people stay away from high-risk activities and grew out of B.R.A.G.’s long-time partnership and hospital response program with St. Barnabas.
“It’s really designed for the young people that come into the emergency room of St Barnabas hospital, recover from their injuries, and now it’s time for them to get physically fit and strong again and learn the art of self-defense, which is boxing,” he said. “It teaches things like discipline and accountability, responsibility, and an overall sense of well-being, mental and physical health.”
According to Caba, the program is designed so that participants meet on Thursdays and Fridays at 6 p.m., because it’s at these times when young people are most likely to get involved with high-risk activities.
“They’re with us in the evenings on Thursdays and Fridays, the next 12 weeks,” he told the Norwood News. “That gives us a huge opportunity to turn them, push them, nudge them in the right direction, and try to keep them there when it’s all said and done,” said Caba.
Daniel Bonilla, clinical integration director at St. Barnabas Healthplex Fitness Center, is one of the program’s instructors. He reiterated Caba’s point, saying that gun violence is most prevalent in the Bronx on Thursday and Friday evenings. He said youth are less likely to get into trouble if they’re in class with him, and when they leave class, they are hopefully too exhausted to engage in violent activities.
For the week ending Aug. 30, murders in the Bronx were up 40 percent compared to the same period last year, the number of shootings had increased by 36.4 percent compared to the same period last year, and the number of shooting victims was also up by 33.4 percent compared to the same period last year. In the 48th precinct, which covers Little Italy, murder is down compared to the same period last year as of Aug. 30, but shooting incidents are up by 21.2 percent and the number of shooting victims has also increased compared to last year by 2.3 percent.
Bonilla said the program organizers chose to provide boxing classes because a lot of kids and youth are into that sport right now. However, he said that if they learn what the body is capable of doing to another person, they are less likely to fight in the streets. “As counterintuitive as it sounds, if you know how to fight, you don’t really want to fight,” he said.
Joel Castillo, BRAG hospital responder supervisor, who happens to be a former professional boxer, said boxing helped him leave behind a life of violence. He said he wants to help show kids in a similar situation that they, too, can do something positive with their lives.
“As long as they’re staying occupied, right? [It] is what’s important but most important is what they can learn from this program, the discipline, their health, the self-care, and how to control emotions, because sometimes it’s not all about fighting,” Castillo said. “Sometimes, knowing what you can do to somebody and how lethal your hands are or whatever it is, you avoid the fight. Sometimes, you just walk away because you know what you can do. It’s a big responsibility,” he added.
The classes are broken up into strength and conditioning sessions and boxing technique sessions. Albert Jovel, general manager at St Barnabas Healthplex Fitness Center, usually teaches the participants strength and conditioning on Thursdays and Bonilla teaches boxing skills on Fridays.
Jovel said the idea is to provide the classes in a way that teaches the participants not only about boxing, but also how to move better, and how to deal with their bodies better. He said it’s a place where they “just have an outlet for themselves, and a place to come, other than the streets.”
He said he would also like to see the youth take the knowledge they acquire about health and fitness with them throughout the rest of their lives.
BRAG purchased boxing equipment for each of the participants to make sure that they each had everything they needed to be successful in the program. “When you’re working with youth and you’re trying to keep them engaged, you want to make sure that you have everything that’s necessary for them to see that we’re taking this seriously,” Caba said. “We want to invest in them, and we want them to maintain this long after the 12-week curriculum is over.”
Bonilla said that after working with the youth for a few weeks, he’s learned that they are open to learning, and are also willing to work hard to learn more. He said they are respectful of the staff, the equipment, and the environment they’re in when they come to class.
“They’re really good kids,” Bonilla said. “That’s the thing that strikes me the most. They’re actually really good kids when you to talk to them. So, the goal is to keep them off the streets, give them something they really enjoy and make sure they’re too tired to do anything bad.”
While B.R.A.G. usually targets young people aged 16 to 25 for its other programs, the participants chosen for the boxing program are between 14 and 18. Castillo picked the kids for this particular program based on the progress he had seen them make in other B.R.A.G. youth programs. He said they are teens from the local neighborhood, and he has known them since they were young.
One of the class participants we spoke to in early August said he’d never boxed before but joined the class after his uncle pitched the idea to him. “I’ve been fighting all my life, like, just regular street fighting and stuff like that,” he said. “So, getting into this, it’s a good thing because instead of fighting outside, I get properly trained and stuff like that.”
After the pilot program ends, Jovel said the organizers hope to operationalize and expand the program over time, eventually expanding to more than just boxing. He said he would like to see the program fully operational with a constant flow of kids and dedicated facilities.
“So, the idea is that if the first pilot goes well, it will go into the second iteration of it… into, you know, more advanced skills leading to an eventual sparring. So, the carrot, if you will, is like an actual sparring session and learning how to, you know, not fight but box and if that works, then identifying other cohorts of kids and making more of a program,” he said.
Caba reiterated the ideas behind Jovel’s vision for the future, saying he wants the program to become a standard programming initiative under BRAG and St. Barnabas.
Castillo said the process of getting the program going has been long, but he’s excited to see how it’s growing. “I’m very happy and I can’t even tell you how I feel about how happy I am [to be] working with these kids and knowing that they are actually pursuing something that they’ve been asking me since they were kids, when they were younger kids,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to keep working and for this program to keep growing,” he said.
B.R.A.G. operates under the nonprofit, Good Shepherd Services, in conjunction with New York City’s crisis management system and the Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence and runs a range of other programs in the Fordham, Belmont, and Wakefield sections of the Bronx.
*Síle Moloney contributed to this story.