By Justin Glanville and TC Lewis
On a recent weekday afternoon, Little Giants Gym in Euclid is blur of activity.
About 20 boys and girls push barbell weights across colorful mats, then switch to sprinting back and forth in relays.
They’re working hard — but also having fun. The kids high-five three male coaches as they complete each circuit, and there’s as much laughing as panting.
Then one of the coaches, Michael Blue, calls the kids into a circle.
“Listen, everybody, you already know this, but I got to remind you every single time,” he says. “Every single one of you guys are special. Every single one of you guys are excellent.”
One boy becomes distracted and starts talking with a friend. The mood changes.
“Hey, listen,” Blue tells the boy. “You missed the first two instructions. Bring it in, focus.”
According to Little Giants owner Calvin Love, that mix of discipline and warmth is the hallmark of the gym.
“They become mindful of, with every decision they make, they’re gonna have to deal with consequences or repercussions,” Love said. “It teaches them, ‘OK, I’m responsible and I have to hold myself accountable for whatever decisions I make.'”
Curtis Moore of Little Giants Gym high-fives a student. [Justin Glanville / Ideastream Public Media]
Accountability and good decision-making may even save lives, he says, given the precipitous rise in youth violence in recent months.
While some observers blame stress related to the coronavirus pandemic, others point to factors such as the increasing number of guns in circulation.
Whatever the explanation, youth violence has been on the rise for years. Love founded Little Giants following the shooting death of his 22-year-old nephew in 2017.
“I wanted to bring light to this issue that has plagued our community,” he said. “Gun violence and victims of gun violence [have] become the norm, and it’s something that we need to address.”
The desire to affect change is the reason he established the gym as a nonprofit organization, Love said. Nonprofit status means the gym can offer classes at partially subsidized rates, which is important in the mostly lower-to-middle-income neighborhoods surrounding Little Giants. It can also seek grants to teach classes to underserved kids in locations across Northeast Ohio.
From Activity To Self-Esteem
Although gun violence has been rising in all kinds of communities — white, Black, suburban, rural — Little Giants tries to reach Black and urban kids in particular, because of the problems stemming from the systemic racism that has long affected Black people and Black city neighborhoods.
A 2017 study by the National Institutes of Health found that African American men facing everyday discrimination also experienced symptoms of depression and low self esteem. Those feelings, when directed outward, can lead to violence.
Love said Little Giants’ classes help kids redirect that energy.
One of the gym’s signature programs is boxing. This past summer, it organized a statewide youth boxing tournament called Fight to Unite Against Youth Violence.
Some experts say boxing training is among the most effective tools for reaching kids prone to violence.
“It’s kind of counterintuitive: You’re teaching kids to fight so they don’t fight,” said social worker Trevor Moyah.
Moyah, who counsels First Nations kids in British Columbia, started boxing at the age of 19. He later authored a study where he interviewed amateur boxers (some youth, some adults) about their experiences in the ring.
Trevor Moyah has studied the effects of boxing on self-esteem. [Trevor Moyah]
The most common theme? Boxers credited the sport with improving their self-esteem.
Moyah said any type of activity can have a positive effect on mental health, but two things make boxing unique. First, it’s intensely physical. Doing early morning road work and drilling on speed bags gives people a real sense of personal accomplishment.
Second, the training is one-on-one. That encourages boxers to establish close bonds with their coaches, improving attitudes toward friendships and relationships in general.
“For a lot of kids, their coach might be the first person that they’ve trusted in their life,” Moyah said. “I think that helps them in their lives. It starts building attachment” and a feeling of belonging that can divert them from the temptations of gangs and street life.
A Gateway To Health
Michael Blue from Little Giants Gym said he’s seen first-hand the effects of a kid building trust with him. He’s been working with a 12-year-old male boxer who came to the gym after experiencing years of abuse at home.
“When he first came to my door, it was, ‘I want to fight everybody. I’m mad, I don’t want to listen, I spit on people,'” Blue said. “But he’s been with us now for about a year and a half, and we’ve been able to see a total transformation. He’s doing better in school. His psychologists are saying he’s doing a lot better at therapy.”
A wall decoration shows Little Giants’ owner, Calvin Love. [Justin Glanville / Ideastream Public Media]
Blue credits more than just boxing and exercise for the change. Counseling, teachers and friends have also helped.
But for troubled kids, he said, intense physical activity can be the gateway to additional intervention.
More kids may get the chance to enter that gateway soon. Little Giants is considering expanding into a second location, possibly also in Euclid.
This story is a collaboration between Ideastream Public Media and WOVU 95.9 FM, Burten Bell Carr Community Radio, where T.C. Lewis is a host and production director.