Ruth Vela-Andrade is itching to get going.
The 10-year-old is one of three kids at a nondescript Sea Mar building at South 11th Street and Ainsworth on Hilltop for the second night of Sea Mar Community Health Centers’ new free Tacoma Youth Boxing Program.
If you happened by the place, chances are you’d never guess what was happening in the building’s basement — which now features a fresh coat of orange paint and a growing collection of boxing and fitness equipment, all of it donated.
It looks like a medical office building, because, up until recently, that’s what it was.
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That’s all immaterial to Vela-Andrade, who is more interested in strapping on a new pair of gloves than talking to a newspaper columnist.
“What I most like about boxing is you can defend yourself,” Vela-Andrade says sheepishly.
According Jeffrey Gibbs, Sea Mar’s medical director of quality, the idea for the program, and the sweat that made it happen, came from 43-year-old Harry Franqui.
Franqui, a director of Sea Mar’s managed care department, says he spent 20 years in law enforcement — much of it in Puerto Rico — before transitioning into a career in health care.
As a young boy growing up in New York, Franqui says, he found his way to a similarly nondescript boxing gym in the neighborhood, and many of the lessons he learned there are ones he’s carried with him for life.
He says he learned more about discipline and hard work than he did about throwing punches.
“In Brooklyn at that time, there was a lot of gang movement and things. So we had a community member, and in his basement he put a couple bags up. He was a retired boxer. And he would drag the kids into there to keep the kids away from all the activity that was happening in the streets,” Franqui says.
“I’ve always wanted to do it. When I had the opportunity to work with the community, I said I want to do this.”
In part inspired by a boxing program Sea Mar has sponsored in Seattle for more than 15 years, Franqui says he approached Sea Mar’s leadership, including president and CEO Rogelio Riojas and executive vice president Mary Bartolo, and asked for permission to give a free boxing gym on Hilltop a try.
Once he got approval, he quickly went to work.
“It was an easy thing for us to give the green light to,” Gibbs says, recalling the pitch Franqui made to Sea Mar executives. “We interpret health care very broadly, and anything that helps our community is something that we will look to be able to support and help.
“The boxing program is one of those. It engages youth, and it’s going to teach them discipline and physical fitness. It involves commitment, exercise and good nutrition. These are all things that can lead to better health in individuals and in the community at large.”
While Franqui has spent a significant amount of time seeking donated equipment, sponsorships and trying to get the word out — including walking around Hilltop and distributing fliers — it’s clear on this second night of training that much work remains.
Currently, the program is open 5:30-6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Eventually, Franqui says, he would like the gym — which is focused on fundamentals and training, not sparring or competing — to be open Monday through Saturday.
Making that jump probably won’t be easy. This is a fledgling effort, to be generous.
Any talk of boxing in Tacoma, and Hilltop, inevitably leads back to Tom Mustin, the longtime coach of the legendary Tacoma Boxing Club. Until 2016, the Tacoma Boxing Club called the Al Davies Boys & Girls Club home. Today, it operates out of the old Gray Middle School gym in South Tacoma.
“It’s not just a piece of cake,” Mustin says of the tall task Franqui faces, especially if he hopes to one day form a team for competition, which requires coaches to be certified.
Still, like Franqui, Mustin says the lessons boxing can instill — even just through training — go far beyond the gym.
“For a whole lot of kids, it turns their life around. It makes a productive citizen out of them,” Mustin says. “If they’re able to come in and do the hard work and train … they go out of the program and then they’re able to get a job and make it everyday.”
For now, whether Sea Mar’s new free boxing gym will succeed remains an open question.
If it fails, it won’t be for lack of effort or passion, Franqui says.
“I walk around a lot. (Sea Mar has) a specialty clinic here down the street for the homeless,” Franqui explains on a hot Hilltop evening. “I see families living in their cars with kids. … We see opioid abuse in the area. We see a lot of kids who are disadvantaged. The idea was to create a place where they could come and do something.
“(Boxing) shaped me up, physically and mentally. That’s what I want to bring here to the kids.”