Books Before Boxing: Making an Impact in Detroit

When we decided to launch Trips, we felt that it would be important to help people give back to the communities they live in and visit. Through Social Impact Experiences, guests can support great causes alongside passionate people and 100 percent of the funds go to the cause.

One of these Experiences has been created by Coach Khali Sweeney, founder of the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program in Detroit.

As a student in Detroit’s inner city, Khali struggled academically, often starting fights to get out of tests. Without help and without hope for his future, he dropped out of school.

Today, graduation rates at some Detroit public schools are less than 30 percent. “A lot of kids are going through the same problems that I went through 20 years ago,” Khali says. “I want to be that role model that I didn’t have.”

In 2007, he started the Youth Program to provide tutoring and mentorship to at-risk kids. As a coach, he uses the promise of boxing lessons as the hook to draw kids into the program.

“Academics have to be plan A, not plan B,” Khali says. He’s adopted the motto “books before boxing.”

When you sign up for Khali’s Experience through the Airbnb app, you’ll meet at the gym shortly before the kids arrive. As Khali shows you around, he’ll tell you about his experience growing up. He’ll describe how his brother helped him quit the street life, and how he sold all his possessions and slept in the gym to keep the program open in its early days.

Then you’ll put on gloves and step into the ring. After your boxing lesson, you’ll get a chance to meet some of the kids. Khali likes to spend this time on the gym floor getting to know what each student is dealing with at home and at school.

There are currently 137 kids in the program, ages 7 to 19. Each day, volunteers and gym staff members pick them up at school and drive them to the gym, a 30,000-square-foot converted warehouse on the city’s east side. The students head first to a set of rooms behind the open gym floor, where they study, play music, and eat a healthy meal.

Program tutors help the students—who each have an individualized learning plan and whose progress is assessed three times a year—with essays, reading, and math. The kids also have access to a computer lab and enrichment classes such as art and robotics.

After they’ve finished their academic work, the kids join Khali and his team of mentors and trainers on the gym floor to run laps, jump rope, and go through drills. Boys and girls train together; the older kids help guide the younger ones.

“You could sit down and question the kids all day, and grill them. You’ll never get to the bottom of what’s really going on,” he says. “When you’re having fun, and your guards are down, you can really ask kids questions, and they’ll tell you.”

So far, every one of the 267 students who have gone through the program have graduated high school, and 98 percent of them have gone on to college.

“Our kids face a lot of stuff early on that other people don’t see,” Khali says. “You put them in an environment where there is hope, there is opportunity, they’ll start to shine.”