All wrapped up in boxing; sportsmanship and discipline are part of the package for inner-city kids.
Kids as young as 5 learn the basics of pugilism in a structured program that's free for those who live in some parts of Allentown, PA. Others can pay to participate at the Allentown Boxing Gym. You wouldn't guess it was Roberto Vega's first time in the Allentown boxing gym.
After having his small hands wrapped in long strips of cotton, the second-grader began dancing in front of a wall mirror and throwing jabs into the beefy hands of former boxer Nelson Perez.
Nearby, 11-year-old Jonathan Valentine concentrated as he pummeled a punching bag suspended from the ceiling, while his father, Jose Valentine, gave him tips on his stance.
The two boys are part of a boxing program for children that is one of Allentown's newest downtown revitalization efforts.
Officials are hoping the program, in which kids as young as 5 can lace on boxing gloves and learn the basics of the sport, will provide an outlet for the youthful energy of children from some of the least privileged areas of Allentown and keep them off the street and out of trouble.
Allentown Superintendent of Recreation Kevin Easterling says he felt it was a no-brainer when former amateur boxer and trainer Luis Melendez approached him about starting a boxing program targeting inner-city youth earlier this year.
''A lot of kids are interested in boxing,'' Easterling says. ''In this area, kids need activity and this was something new.''
Funded by a Community Development Block Grant through the city's Weed and Seed program, the program is free for children in the city's First and Sixth wards. Anyone else can participate but must pay a fee.
The new gym, which opened on the top floor of a dilapidated warehouse on American Parkway, features a ring, punching and speed bags, and other equipment donated by former boxer Jesse Harris, who runs a boxing gym in Stroudsburg, PA.
Jonathan Valentine has been coming daily since the program started in April. His father, a former boxer, is pleased the city is offering it. ''We watch fights together all the time,'' says Jose Valentine.
Melendez, who was an amateur Golden Gloves boxer in the 1970s, says he saw firsthand the benefits of the sport after he began boxing at the age of 8 in Puerto Rico, where he was born.
''I learned how to control myself and how to get along with other people,'' he says.
Melendez says boxing is about discipline and structure. The training program teaches kids coordination and balance and about getting enough sleep and proper diet and exercise, he adds.
''It's not just about fighting,'' says Melendez. ''The first thing I tell them is they're not going to beat anyone up.''
Through boxing, he says, kids learn to redirect their aggression in a positive way, keeping them away from negative influences such as drugs and gangs.
''It's two hours they are not doing anything bad,'' he says. ''It's exciting to work with these kids. They don't want to leave.''
The program also fosters relationships between the trainers and the kids, giving the kids positive role models, says Easterling.
''The beauty of the sport is they come to know each other and forge friendships,'' he says. ''It's not one race or color. Everyone works together.''
It also strengthens family interaction, says Randy Cope, the city Recreation Program Development Specialist.
''More parents are stopping by and encouraging the kids to meet their goals,'' he says. ''It's really working out well.''