STATEN ISLAND, NY — The importance of investing in inner city youth and creating a good relationship between the police and the community was highlighted at the recent ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the new NYC Cops & Kids Boxing program fitness center at the Richmond Road facility in Dongan Hills.
The new 1,500-square-foot fitness center is tucked inside the Park Hill Apartments, and it is an expansion to an already existing NYC Cops & Kids Boxing program gym at the site. The purpose of the resource is to allow kids from ages 12 to 21 to have access to general fitness opportunities beyond a boxing gym — at no cost.
“Not every kid wants to box, but they all want to be physically fit and work out, and they all want to be part of a positive program,” said Pat Russo, a retired police sergeant and founder of the free NYC Cops & Kids Boxing program.
According to Russo, there are 800 kids in the free NYC Cops & Kids Boxing program, which also has locations in the Park Hill Apartments and in Brooklyn. He added that he hopes to expand throughout all five boroughs.
“If the people don’t know about it, then it never happened,” he said.
The goals of the program are simple, he said, explaining, “We need to distract these kids from abhorrent behavior. We need to mentor these kids and put them on the right track.”
Saleh Khatari, 14, has been involved in the NYC Cops & Kids Boxing program at the Brooklyn location for seven months. He trains with former Olympic Coach Benny Roman, who has been involved in the program for nearly a decade, and his friend Angel Flores.
“Olympic Coach Benny …. He’s determined to train. He wants us to be the best,” Saleh said. “And my friend Angel, he’s more than a friend.”
Roman, who said he grew up in a disadvantaged area, explained: “I see the kids who come in who don’t have advantages that other kids have, so I try to discipline them and let them know that there are other ways instead of the streets. I encourage them to stay in school and get good grades.”
Angel added that it’s a blessing to be able to spar with other kids and learn something new every day.
Out of the five boxing matches Saleh has participated in, he said he has won four of them. He was also distinguished by the NYC Cop & Kids organization for having the highest grade point average (GPA) — 98.7 — among all kids in the program, and he received a $1,000 check from the NYPD boxing team.
The free NYC Cops & Kids program also has an educational component, Russo explained.
“Any kid who gets a 90 average on a report card gets a $50 bill from a cop,” he said. Additionally, the high schooler in the program with the highest average at the end of each school year is awarded a $1,000 check from the NYPD Boxing Team, he explained.
The original boxing gym on Richmond Road is where 17-year-old Anthony Laieta of Dongan Hills trains as a boxer, and after months of hard work he won the NYC Ring Masters in the 132-pound weight division this past spring.
Laieta, a recent graduate of New Dorp High School, has been boxing since he was in seventh grade. He spent much of his final year of high school training for the NYC Ring Masters Tournament, formerly known as the Golden Gloves.
“I think it affected my life for the better,” Laieta told the Advance/SILive.com in an interview about his training. “And I’ve gotten in a lot better shape than I was in past years. And I always, you know, look forward to something when I’m working out, training.”
‘BEST PROGRAM POSSIBLE’
With the help of the New York City Housing Authority, which provided the rent-free space at the encouragement of Assemblyman Michael Cusick (D-North Shore/Mid-Island), and several non-profit and corporate donors, renovations on the existing boxing facility started about six months ago.
“I think the Cops & Kids program is actually the best program possible when it comes to community policing and building relationships between our youth and the men and women of the NYPD,” said Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-Staten Island/South Brooklyn), who attended Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting event. “I encourage everyone to take some time to just take some swings with them [the youth].”
In addition to Malliotakis and Cusick, others in attendance at the ceremony included: Borough President Vito Fossella; Deputy Chief Terence Hurson; former NYPD Deputy Inspector Alison Esposito; NYCHA Chair and CEO Greg Russ.
The program, including the construction of the new gym, is funded by the NYPD Boxing Team and sponsors, including: Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC); Dana Ford; the New York Giants; National Grid; the city Department of Corrections; the FDNY, and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, among others.