ATLANTIC CITY — It was 85 degrees outside and markedly hotter inside the Atlantic City Police Athletic League, where young boxers honed their skills Tuesday.
The sweat dripped down their faces and necks, but the kids didn’t let the heat get to them. For them, the PAL program is a positive outlet amid growing violence among their peers.
After announcing a $65,000 grant to fund the city-run boxing program, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal joined city and county law-enforcement officials to tour the PAL.
“If this works here, we’ll take it across the state,” Grewal said.
The PAL was awarded the grant to provide an educational, social and recreational program for three hours after school on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for 20 boys and girls from Atlantic City between the ages of 11 and 15. The Attorney General’s Youth Community Outreach Program for New Jersey Amateur Boxing will begin in September and will be funded for 12 months through the grant. The grant will expand the PAL’s long-running boxing program, which has produced its share of professional fighters.
Grewal said Atlantic City was chosen for the grant especially in light of the recent gun violence in the community. In the past two months, there have been six people under the age of 30 killed by guns in Atlantic City. Three were teenagers.
“It’s incumbent upon us to step up,” Grewal said.
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Francisco Rodriguez, 15, of Atlantic City, said he began boxing at 8 and had his first match at 10.
“It keeps me dedicated and focused, and it keeps me out of the streets,” he said.
Rodriguez was happy to hear about the additional funding.
“It’s really going to help,” he said.
Grewal joined many of the boxers in the ring for a pep talk, telling them it was up to them to make sure the program was successful.
“Put down the guns, pick up the gloves,” someone shouted as the pep talk came to an end.
Police Chief Henry White said the investment in the youth of the city is an investment in the city’s future.
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“Our children have seen far too much at such a young age,” he said, adding the grant could not have come at a better time.
Grewal cited a hospital recidivism rate for gunshot victims of 20%.
“We need to break that cycle,” he said. “This is one piece of it. We do it for opioids. We need to do it for gun violence.”
Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner said that sort of recidivism is not uncommon for this area, and cited an incident in the past year where one victim was shot twice in three days.
“It’s all hands on deck,” Tyner said. “I am happy that the mayor, other people in the community, are starting to step up to address the problem.”
Mayor Frank Gilliam was among those who joined Grewal Tuesday for the announcement.
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“Today is a great way of showing we understand it’s a public health issue,” Gilliam said of the gun violence that has cast a shadow over the city this summer. “It’s disheartening to have so many young people lose their lives before their lives really begin.”
Gilliam compared it to a war zone. But for soldiers who return home from war, there are counseling and other services available, he said. For children in urban environments, those safety nets are not there.
Gilliam said that in addition to programs like the PAL, the city has been meeting with AtlantiCare, the Alcove Center for Grieving Children & Families and other organizations to create more positive programs for youth.
Grewal credited state boxing commissioner Larry Hazzard for Atlantic City being the recipient of the grant.
Police Sgt. Monica Coursey said the goal of the boxing program is to combine the benefits of physical fitness with life skills like nutrition, decision making and self-control.
“It’s a blessing for our Atlantic City youth,” Coursey said.