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Business Spotlight: Fighting Chance

COVID-19 threatens boxer's dream to help at-risk kids

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Darrell “Smitty” Smith isn’t one to shy from a fight. His entire life has been built on them.

The boxer fought successfully in the ring, in wars, bureaucratic battles and combat injuries before opening Smitty’s Midwest Boxing Gym in 2012.

But Smith’s greatest fight yet may be with the COVID-19 pandemic, which is threatening the existence of the nonprofit gym he opened to give kids a better shot at success.

Smith, 55, began boxing as a kid at Boys and Girls Clubs of Springfield and won his first Golden Gloves title before he reached junior high, he says.

At the age of 16, Smith boxed in the Golden Gloves’ national semifinals.

While serving in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, Smith boxed in the 1988 All Army Championships. He was poised to try out for the Olympics when he was sidelined by injuries he sustained while serving in Iraq.

When Smith returned to Springfield, he found no kids’ boxing program.

“I thought, why don’t I start a gym and get these kids off of the street?” he says. “Because everywhere I went in life, boxing opened up doors for me. It always got conversations started.”

So, he did.

Smith used his separation pay from the Army to open the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Smitty’s Midwest Boxing Gym on East Commercial Street.

Smith finances the $1,100 monthly rent with his military disability pay, draws no salary and has no paid staff. The gym is financed through a combination of tuition fees and donations.

Smith isn’t sure how many kids he’s coached since opening — he’s more focused on outcomes than numbers. Tuition to attend the combination class — open to all ages — is $75 per month. A women’s all-levels class is $45, and a class open to people who have Parkinson’s Disease or autism is available for free. The kids in the program typically pay tuition, but assistance is available for those who can’t afford it.

Setting a high bar
Smith says his program is about building confidence and discipline in at-risk teens. He says many of the teens he’s coached go on to trade school or college.

He has strict rules: B grade average or higher, good conduct, no smoking, no drugs and no gang activity.

Those who abide by the rules and improve have the opportunity to travel the nation to compete in USA Boxing amateur matches.

But that gets expensive, with the cost for the van, hotel rooms, gas and other expenses such as subsidizing kids’ food budget.

“I thought it would take like $20,000 a year to run (the program), but it takes more like $40,000 to $50,000 to run it. One trip can go to $4,000 or $5,000,” he says.

This, he says, is why donations are crucial. In normal years, Smith says he sees donations of about $10,000 to $15,000. This year, he’s received one donation, from the Heart of the Ozarks Sertoma Club, in the amount of $2,500.

Despite his precarious financial position, Smith says he’s reluctant to reach out to donors and sponsors.

“You don’t want to beat something in the ground and you don’t want to keep asking for more,” he says.

Paul King — a Springfield attorney who has practiced labor and employment law representing management since 1973 through his firm Paul W. King LLC — is among the gym’s supporters.

King met Smith through their shared Sertoma affiliation. King — who now works out at the gym — says he lends support through professional services and financially when one of the kids needs help with travel expenses or tuition. King says he does it “because (Smith is) doing good things for the kids, many of whom come from nothing. He can’t save them all, but he saves a few.”

SRC Holdings Corp. CEO Jack Stack donated $5,000 to the gym in 2018 when Smith got into a financial bind. He sums up his motivation simply: “Don’t you love programs where you get results? I can’t make it any more simple.”

A big blow
In 2019, Smith had about 40 kids in his boxing program, he says. Two of his boxers had gotten letters to participate in the 2020 Olympics trials. Smith was planning to hold a pro-am exhibition fight to raise money.

Then a coronavirus launched a global pandemic.

Smith now sees 10 or 15 in his gym. He says his adult classes are down dramatically.

When asked if his gym doors will remain open after COVID-19 runs its course, Smith isn’t sure how to respond.

“I don’t know the answer to that question. I’m at a crossroads mentally,” he says.

Supporter Loren Cook II, president of Loren Cook Co., says he’s hopeful Smith will find a way through this situation. “This guy here is literally making an impact on these students and these kids, and if he’s not around, what happens to these kids?”

Smith says his plan for the time being is to keep going “until the good Lord tells me ‘That’s it; you’re done whether you want to be or not.’”

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