Walk into the gym at Berkeley’s Young Adult Project on a Monday afternoon, and you might see some heavy bags hanging from the walls around the basketball courts. In front of the bags are boxers, pacing themselves through combinations shouted by the small, forceful voice of head trainer Ginsi Bryant. Around the gym, the whipping sound of a jump rope hits the floor, as participants who aren’t on the bags work on cardio as they wait for a turn to throw combos of their own.
“When I first started working here, we were trying to find creative ways to teach the kids discipline,” said Bryant, who has been with the Young Adult Project (YAP) for 16 years and is also its recreation coordinator. “We had a lot of kids who were fighting in school and/or on the streets, so we figured: Why not give the kids what they want? Just in a positive manner.”
The philosophy behind the boxing program is called “Having a Vision of Choices,” or HAVOC for short. Participants, age 10 and up, focus on basic boxing techniques as well as strength and conditioning. On a deeper level, HAVOC aims to help youth understand cause and effect, and that there are consequences for their actions.
“Young people need to have a better vision and understanding when it comes to decision making,” said Bryant. “One of our key ‘coachisms’ is, ‘you’re only one bad decision away.’ We want our kids to understand how important the power of choice is.”
Bryant initially got into boxing because she was looking for ways to defend herself. She joined King’s Boxing Gym in Oakland and, in 2001, received her certification to train from USA boxing.
To her recollection, boxing was first offered to local youth in the early 90s at Berkeley Youth Alternatives in West Berkeley.
“It was a great outlet for the kids, so I decided to start a brand new program, but this time at YAP,” she said.
Bryant said the program, which began in 2006, is among the most popular offerings at YAP, which is located at 1730 Oregon St. Initially, boxing was offered just once a week, but demand for it led to a need for more sessions. Now, classes are offered three times a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, from 4-6 p.m.
The Young Adult Project was founded in 1972 in South Berkeley with the goal of creating a constructive environment for youth, to help keep them off the streets to reduce their chances of encountering negative situations.
In Berkeley, and throughout the nation, many African American youth have struggled for decades to overcome obstacles posed by violence, poverty and drugs. YAP’s goal is to offer an alternative.
About 90% of YAP’s participants are from low-income black families who live in South and West Berkeley, according to program organizers.
And, as these areas continue to be impacted by gentrification and declining black populations, community spaces like YAP become more important. According to the U.S. Census, Berkeley’s black population went from 13% in 2000 to an estimated 8% in 2013.
Phillip Harper-Cotton is recreation supervisor for the city of Berkeley. He’s also a Berkeley native who has worked for the city since 1968. He said he has watched YAP grow into one of Berkeley’s model recreation programs.
“The Young Adult Project was and still is designed to provide a safe space for the kids of South Berkeley,” he said.
The aim, he explained, is to “promote a safe social environment, delinquency prevention and youth development through … educational, cultural, counseling and recreational activities.
The organization — which receives most of its funding from the city, and some from donations — hosts a number of sports, arts and crafts programs aimed to help keep Berkeley youth on the right track.
There’s an active twilight basketball league, where kids of the community have a chance to develop their skills on the court and learn the fundamentals of the game. In the Young Divas circle, young women learn about the dangers of peer pressure, practice conflict resolution skills and develop a sense of empowerment.
Harper-Cotton said he sees athletics as a great way to bridge the gap between youth and adults in the community. And he said the mentorship youth get through programs like the boxing class is crucial, too.
“The combination of mentoring, tutoring and recreational programs is a good mix for the older youth. They get a chance to be influenced by staff members who really want the best for them,” he said. “Through the athletic programs, they develop a respect for their peers, respect that is needed if they want to continue to go down the right path.”
Fans of the program say its impact can be lasting. Nailah Milan, who grew up in Berkeley and is a frequent volunteer at YAP, said the program was a safe haven for her during formative years, and hopes it can play the same role for her children.
She said, for her, YAP feels like a village within the community where adults care for all the children as if they were their own.
“I came to YAP when I was growing up,” she said. “It’s nice to know that there are still some programs and people that still stay true to the morals and values that I was raised on.”
Assistant trainer and UC Berkeley graduate Ray Stewart has been part of the program for the past two years. Stewart, who is from Oakland, ran track at UC Berkeley and graduated from Cal in 2013 with a degree in sociology.
In addition to his work with the boxing program, he is a strength and conditioning coach for Merritt College’s track and field team in Oakland.
Stewart said he wants to give back to the community, and that working with youth at YAP gives him the perfect opportunity to do so.
“I wanted to work with people and show them where I came from, and show them they can be something,” said Stewart. “I want to give them some hope that they can do something positive.”
Stewart said YAP uses a “community first” approach to promote health, non-violence and positivity for Berkeley youth and the city as a whole.
“We are really big on treating each other like family,” said Stewart. “We believe in doing what’s best for those around us, and living that way really builds a strong sense of community. You become accustomed to treating your surroundings with respect.”
Stewart said the boxing program helps participants grow mentally as well as physically.
“I’ve seen how our program is changing people,” said Stewart. “We’ve had people come and they barely make it through the warm up. They continue to come work out and, the next thing you know, they’re no longer complaining about how tired they are.”
He also described the confidence participants gain.
“They come in here and, through the program, we get the chance to push their boundaries,” said Stewart. “They get a chance to see how strong they are, not only physically but mentally.”
Terrence Sims of Berkeley has been a regular at the weekly classes since September. He and his 17-year-old son, Malik, both participate. The elder Sims said he heard about the program from a friend and decided he would give it a shot.
Sims said the class has helped him and his son develop a stronger bond.
“I come here with him to these classes and he pushes me,” he said. “He’s helping me in my pursuit for health. And being here with him, seeing him go hard, it inspires me.”
YAP is located at the MLK Jr. Youth Services Center, at 1730 Oregon St. Prices for the boxing class start at $15 a month for youth, and $35 for adults. (The month begins from the day you start and you pay the fee at the end of every month. It is not mandatory for participants to come to every session.) Learn more about the Young Adult Project on the city website.
Delency Parham, a former reporting intern for Berkeleyside, is a graduate of Berkeley High School and the University of Idaho, where he majored in journalism.
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