ASHLAND – To get there, you walk down an alley off Homer Avenue strewn with cigarette butts, crushed soft-drink cans, pigeon feathers, empty Fritos bags, and unidentifiable detritus. A woman smoking on her work break gives directions to the entrance you are looking for. Behind the two dumpsters, she says: There it is.
The sign on the door: YOUTH BOXING CLUB.
The inside contradicts the alley. It is clean, spacious, and sunny, an old warehouse turned over to be a refuge, maybe a life-altering one, for those who come.
They are all welcome here, in a program run by the Ashland Police Athletic League: the troubled, the troublemakers, the good kids, the at-risk kids, girls and boys. They take up boxing, but that is not the primary lesson the instructors want to get across.
‘If it wasn’t for this place, I’d be in a lot darker place.’
“The goal is to give them something positive to do, something positive to focus on,” said Bobby Andrews, one of the instructors. “We try to focus on kids having trouble in school, or whatever.”
“I had anger issues,” said Austin Morrissey, a 15-year-old sophomore at Hopkinton High.
“I was short-tempered. I had trouble at school, acting out, giving teachers trouble.”
Coming here has helped. He absorbs the boxing part, and listens to the life lessons meted out by the instructors.
“They’ve taught me to be more controlled,” said Morrissey. “Now I use my emotions inside the ring. The self-control I’ve learned here I have to take outside.”
He could listen to Andrews’s story. He is 44 years old. After graduating from Ashland High, he had no plans, no direction.
“I was getting in trouble. I wanted to find something to do.” He met Rocky Smith, who ran the Natick Boxing Club, which operated in the cellar of the West Natick fire station. Rocky could teach you the sweet science. He also looked at each kid who came to the gym as a son.
Rocky straightened Andrews out: “The Natick Boxing Club had a big influence on me.”
Morrissey was in a program for at-risk kids. “One of the instructors knew Bobby. He told me to come here,” said Morrissey.
His life has changed. He feels better about himself. “I can see I’m happier now when I go home,” he added.
There is no cost. “All they have to do is show up,” said Ashland police Officer David Muri. “They don’t have to be high-risk kids. We’ll take any kid.”
Muri became concerned a few years ago when members of Framingham gangs began showing up in Ashland. The Framingham PAL tried to counter the gang culture with a boxing club on the third floor of the Danforth Museum.
Ashland received a $12,000 state grant five years ago and the boxing club was born. The grant has run out, but the instructors have stayed on as volunteers. They have a mission. “Idle time is dangerous for high school kids,” said Muri.
The club rules are posted on the wall on the right, as you walk in. They include: No weapons or sharp instruments; no alcohol; no drugs. There is a ring and rows of heavy and speed bags. The thud of the punches landing in the gut of the heavy bags and the snapping of the speed bags tells you where you are. This is not soccer practice.
“My friends got me here three years ago,” said Shawn Kearns, 16, from Natick. “I really didn’t want to, at first. My dad made me go.” Kearns was surprised that he liked it from the get-go. “I was really sick of basketball and baseball,” he added. “I wanted to try a new sport, and stay in shape.”
He has had one official fight, in March at the Silver Mittens in Lowell. Although he was defeated in a three-round decision — “I lost my stamina,” he said — it did not derail his dream. “I want to fight in the Golden Gloves when I’m around 18.”
Jesse Shea, 18, wrestled and played soccer for Hopkinton High. He first came here with the wrestling captain. “We were going to do our own thing, wrestle,” said Shea, “but when we saw all this going on, we came back to box.”
Shea will attend Boston College and plans on taking up international studies and economics. He wants to stick with boxing. “I’m sure I can find some place in Boston where I can box.,” he added.
Katrina Capobianco, 20, from Ashland, is entering her senior year at Colby-Sawyer College. She played softball in high school. “Officer Muir asked me if I’d be interested in coming here,” she said. “I came with a friend and got hooked. It’s an addictive sport. Something new to try.”
Gina Klay of Ashland began kick-boxing about 12 years ago.
“I saw the boxing classes and decided to try it,” she said. “Some people, including my mother, didn’t want me to get involved.” Once in the gym, Klay said, “most of the people in the boxing world encouraged me.”
That was all she needed.
Klay, an athletic trainer and dog walker, is in terrific shape. “Gina’s a great role model for the women,” said Muir.
Klay, a former cheerleader at Marlborough High, gives boxing instructions to boys and girls. “It just seemed like a sport I was good at,” she said. “It was challenging, fun, and a good workout.”
Andrews said, “Girls pick up boxing faster than boys. They listen. Boys just want to throw haymakers.”
“We’ve had a fair amount of girls here,” said Hopkinton businessman Doug Glazie, who began as an instructor with the Framingham PAL. “This has been very good. We’ve turned it around for some kids.”
This is a place where kids who do not play team sports can flourish. “Shy, introverted kids, given the opportunity, can feel like an athlete,” said Glazier. “Maybe they can’t hit a curveball, but they’re thinking, ‘Maybe I can do this.’ This is a great concept, a valuable resource.”
“The goal is to give them something positive to do,” said Andrews, “and maybe they can get their aggression out.”
Jesse Shea used the boxing club as a retreat after soccer season at Hopkinton High ended with a loss in the state tournament. “I was a little bit down,” he said. “I came here and it picked me up.”
Josh Hacunda, who is headed to Brandeis this fall, played soccer and ran track at Hopkinton High. But he “loves” boxing. “When I started here I started sparring with older boys,” he said. “That was fun. If you have a bad day, come here. It’s beneficial.”
Austin Morrissey doesn’t have to be sold on that idea.
“If it wasn’t for this place, I’d be in a lot darker place.”