Rising from the canvas

  • August 8, 2012

By Ryan Maquinana

In a perfect world, the East Oakland Boxing Association would be celebrating its 25th anniversary fundraiser event with nothing but unassailable pride.

Instead, its loyal members—most of them between ages 5 and 20—approach the July 21 18-bout amateur show with the added fear that one of the few safe havens in their embattled neighborhood could close its doors by the end of the year.

“We have 130 kids in here right now for the summer program,” head coach Jamal Valdez-Allen said.  “If we had to shut down because of a lack of funding, where would they go?”

Further compounding matters is the disturbing trend of burglaries that temporarily floored the non-profit.  In a development that shocks the conscience, the Oakland Tribune reported that thieves have broken into the EOBA SmartMoves building and pilfered it clean four times in four weeks, with the last incident taking place just a week ago.

“It’s been a challenge,” physical education coordinator Dan Robinson said.  “We don’t have a lot here, so when someone starts taking what little we have away, it can slow things down.  We had to close for a day, but with the little bit of replacement equipment we have, the energy level is back and the kids are in good spirits.”

The laundry list of stolen items includes boxing equipment, 10 laptops, a TV, internet hardware, gardening tools, art supplies, and even stainless steel bottles with the EOBA logo on them.

“So far, the police haven’t found any leads, but if you hear anything, let us know,” EOBA executive director Sarah Chavez said.  “I think it’s definitely unconscionable what these thieves are doing.  I understand that the economy’s bad and people have to do what they need to survive, but why would you steal from an organization that is providing free services to the kids and the community in general?”

Idle hands that aren’t slugging away at a heavy bag can be put to detrimental use in the inner-city streets of East Oakland, especially after school when parents are still at work.  Since the late Stanley Garcia founded EOBA in 1987, the organization has given impressionable youth a vital outlet from the daily hazards of drug abuse, gang activity, and even the rising epidemic of juvenile prostitution.

“We’ve learned that the highest crime rate during the school year is between 3 and 6 o’clock,” Chavez said.  “We’re keeping kids off the street.  We’re giving them something to do.  We’re giving them a healthy snack.  We’re making sure they get their homework done.  If we’re not here, where are they?”

While mastering the sweet science means absorbing the intangible life lessons of dedication, discipline, and respect, EOBA’s SmartMoves program offers much more than boxing instruction for young amateur fighters like Marco Simon, the reigning Northern California novice lightweight champion. 

“A kid like Marco doesn’t just build their basic physical skills like their technique, balance, footwork, or strategy.  It’s about learning integrity,” Valdez-Allen added.  “It’s about building their confidence, and those type of things carry over into what they do outside the ring.  Also, it’s not just boxing you can learn here.  There’s a lot to do.”

Over the years, SmartMoves has empowered local adolescents and teens by providing academic tutoring, job skills, and even backyard gardening tutorials that extol the nutritional benefits of growing organic produce. 

EOBA also works with food banks to deliver 200 monthly care packages to needy families free of charge, which makes the recent news harder to stomach for Chavez. 

“The people who are stealing from us need to take responsibility,” she said.  “They’re choosing consciously to violate a place that is one, supposed to be a safe place for our neighborhood, and two, supposed to give free services to the whole community. When you burglarize this place, you’re stealing from our kids.”

In fact, no less than 30,000 boys and girls have spent their formative afterschool days in the former auto body shop on 98th Avenue, with several successful alumni serving as living reminders of EOBA’s indispensible place in the community.

“They come back all the time to work here in the summer,” said Chavez, herself an East Oakland product who graduated from Castlemont High and Cal State East Bay. “We have one former boxer, Veronica, who is currently at Cal State Long Beach, and another alum, Jamal, who now goes to Langston University [in Oklahoma]. 

“It’s powerful when the kids see them return because they have all kinds of questions about college, because they can see and learn firsthand what it takes to get there.  They have to be pretty determined, and definitely resilient.”

Resiliency has been a recurring theme at EOBA.  Untimely deaths have afflicted the organization in recent years.  The losses of head trainer Paul Wright (2008), intern Phillip Wright to a tragic shooting (no relation, 2009), Garcia (2010), and board president Frank Rose (2011) have further depleted the staff—one so thin that Chavez is the only remaining full-time employee. 

“A lot of our staff is made up of students who usually spend 10 hours a week here,” she said.  “They are so dedicated to the kids, and they’re here because they love this place, especially because you won’t get rich working here.  Without their hard work, I don’t know how we would have survived this long.”

EOBA’s employees have become adept at scouring for new sources of assistance.  When the coffers were close to bare in January and February, the Philanthropic Venture Foundation approved the staff’s grant application to fund the summer program, which began on June 25.

Not unlike most boxing narratives, the EOBA may seem to be on its last legs, but it refuses to stay down for the count.  Less than a month ago, the organization held an event at Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Jack London Square that raised $6,000.  Following the string of burglaries, a few donors have come forward in an attempt to replace what has been stolen. 

“After the first burglary, the kids were mad, so our response was to be show them that you need to stay positive,” Chavez said.  “Sure enough, some people stepped forward and helped us.  A woman drove all the way from Fremont and dropped off 25 pairs of boxing gloves.  Bay Alarm came through and donated surveillance equipment and an alarm system.”

Chavez received another helping hand from a familiar face.

“Another person who’s helped us when we were really down and out is [Oakland] Councilman Larry Reid, who’s been a huge mentor of mine since I was in high school,” she said.  “Earlier in the year, he personally made phone calls to raise funds for us.  Also, after this last break-in, he’s agreed to cover six months of monitoring fees for the new Bay Alarm system.”

Nonetheless, the recent influx of money and equipment hardly constitutes enough support that would allow one to relax.  According to Chavez, an estimated $350,000 is necessary just to keep EOBA afloat each year. 

As a result, the upcoming show will be another crucial moment for the future of East Oakland’s children, as Chavez and her team continue to walk the budgetary tightrope to keep this bastion of community service standing.

“With everything that’s gone on, getting our story out to the media has helped a little with fundraising,” she said.  “To be honest, there isn’t as much money out there like before, but we’re still going to keep fighting for our kids every day because we believe in them.  They’re our most precious resource.”

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