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Phoenix Police’s Gang Enforcement Unit Backs Boxing Program For At-Risk Kids

Chavez Boxing
(Photo by Lauren Gilger - KJZZ)
Students do warm up push-ups with Coach Pete Chavez at the Chavez Boxing Gym in Phoenix.

Pete Chavez grew up in a rough Phoenix neighborhood, and he said he got involved in gangs at a young age.

“I wasn’t a bad kid; I just didn’t know any better,” he said. “It was normal. You know, gangs, every corner that you turn, there was a gang.”

But when he was 14, he said his life changed when he started boxing. His first time in the ring, he learned he wasn’t as tough as he thought.

“The first time I sparred with, you know, a guy smaller than me, no muscle tone, nothing, (he) beat the like – beat the crap out of me,” he said.

So, Chavez worked, and he got better.

“My first fight: knock out. My second fight: knock out. My third fight: knock out, and on and on and I’m like, ‘Wow!’” he said.

Boxing made him realize his own power. He said that even guys from gangs would stick up for him in his neighborhood.

“They would tell them like, ‘No, he’s going to be our next champion, leave this guy alone,’” he said. “It really influenced me as a kid.”

For more than a decade, he’s worked as a boxing coach and personal trainer at Chavez Boxing Gym in Phoenix. Since 2007, he’s also worked to help kids stay on the right track with his nonprofit, the Chavez Boxing Foundation.

The foundation supports 20 at-risk kids and teens to enroll in his amateur boxing program. The kids enrolled have to keep up good grades, be on time for practices and stay on away from drugs and alcohol.

“I really saw this as an opportunity for us to really address the gang issue on the front end, instead of trying to fix something when they’re already involved and embedded in that gang lifestyle,” said Phoenix Police Sargent Chris Eyrich.

He’s been on the department’s Gang Enforcement Unit for the past three years. Before that, he spent two decades working in South Central Los Angeles and then South Phoenix.

He said gang violence in Phoenix is down overall, but, “yes, we have shootings, stabbings, we have gang threats.”

Gangs “steal the community from the people that live in it,” he said.

Eyrich said there are two ways people say they get caught up in gangs: They were born in, or they were jumped in, “which means, for a certain amount of time, people who are already in the gang, other gang members, will beat them up” until they join, he said.

This can start for kids as young as 12, he said.

When Eyrich saw a video on Facebook about the Chavez Boxing Foundation, he knew he had to get involved.

“They have to be here at a certain time. They can’t miss,” Eyrich said. “Even though it seems like they’re being hard on them, they love it, they love it, they have to be somewhere; they have to be responsible.”

Eyrich became involved and got the foundation added to the City of Phoenix’s Community Service Fund Drive, a partnership with United Way. Soon, city employees will be able to donate to the foundation directly from their paychecks. And, he’s working with the gym on gang-resistance education for the kids.

“Everything’s about respect - respect for yourself,” Eyrich said. “If you hear them, when he asks them a question, they’ll say ‘Yes, Coach.’”

Chavez said out of the six guys he grew up with in the gym, only two of them made it out.

“Two of them committed suicide, you know, one got killed,” Chavez said. “Another one, armed robbery, ended up in prison - attempted murder.”

That’s why he tells these kids boxing saves lives, because he thinks it saved his.

“I hated my home life; I hated my life, period. So with the ring, like boxing, that was our haven,” Chavez said. “It was my motivation, my sanctuary. And I loved it.”

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.