HOLLAND, Mich. — The issue of gang activity has been a problem in parts of the lakeshore since the ’90s, but a Christian-based program is helping families and former gang members to escape that lifestyle.
The program is literally called the “Escape” Ministries program. Executive Director Willie Watt said they’re trying to give kids another way out of a life on the streets or in gangs.
On any given day, you’ll find around 30 kids and young adults working out and hitting the bags at the ministry’s Westside Boxing gym.
Coaches say the program enrolls more than 100.
“I have a fight that’s coming up, so I’ve been training really hard for it,” said Zach Calverley, 16, another member of the Westside Boxing team.
It also showcases the talents of Allen Torres, a 19-year-old who’s going pro with the Golden Gloves organization.
“It was an amazing feeling there was a lot of people supporting me on the way,” Torres said.
The students in the boxing program are using the Westside gym and the Escape ministries programs to fight their way to a different life.
“Escape gave us the opportunity to come here, train, workout. You know, the kids that are stuck doing nothing after school, just roaming the streets, have a place to come now,” Torres said.
Many of the young men have had interactions with gangs in Holland in the past and they feel their lives could have turned out much differently if they weren’t working out their time and energy at the gym.
Allen said he was going down a much different path before re-focusing on his talents. After he did that, he got his grades up and received a scholarship for wrestling.
“I did really well after I got away from bad influences because I had no place to go,” he said. “I felt like there was no place to go in Holland to escape anything.”
He said for some kids, the town can become claustrophobic, like a fishbowl.
“It’s really a blessing that God put this in front of us to get kids off the streets and them into something more structured,” said Allen. “Something more organized.
Juan Carols, 25, also had interactions with gangs in the area although he didn’t want to go into detail about those experiences.
However, at Westside boxing, he’s putting his force behind being a better role model for his family.
“It’s mostly family-wise like my cousins, brothers, stuff like that,” he said. “They see me as a role model right now because I’m doing something better than getting into trouble.”
Trinidad Morin is the head coach and trainer at Westside Boxing.
“The last 20 years, I think I’ve accumulated over 150 gang students off the streets,” said Trinidad.
Escape Ministries Executive Director Willie Watt says one of the biggest issues is that approximately 200 kids are homeless in Holland.
“If they’re not being guided by parents, or not being watched or poured into, then these kids go into the community and get into gangs and therefore get themselves into trouble,” said Watt.
Without income and support, he said may see gangs or life on the streets as the only survival option.
“Holland is getting kind of to that point where it seems all kids want to do is join gangs,” Torres said. “Or they want to be a part of a group, a family so-called. And you know what? That’s what we offer here we’re all one big family.
Escape is also about learning. Teachers there help the kids or are kicked out of school keep up with their homework.
They also have a recreation room to hang out in and play pool and other games while they socialize, a recording studio for budding musicians, and opportunities to make art.
Former Holland Latin Kings future Pedro Soto loves the MMA mat and the boxing ring.
His mother felt like he was in danger of becoming one of the 31 alleged members of the Holland Latin Kings that were charged and behind bars during the massive federal bust earlier this year.
“Helps you control your anger, stay positive and stuff like that,” he said about the fitness programs.
He’s also working on developing his art skills by painting a mural on one of the classroom walls and hes’ drawing sketches that could signal a future in graphic design.
The program isn’t just for former gang members, though.
Although he has a wicked punch, Zach said he used to be painfully shy before he joined Escape’s boxing program which shifted his self-confidence.
“I think it’s because our coaches generally care, they’re not in it for money, they do It for free so they care about us,” said Zach.
Fitness buff Mike Rice was in a dark place in his life when he came to Escape.
“It can affect your future if you’re not in the right place or the right mindset. You can seriously plummet into places you don’ t want to be ,” said Mike.
After working with Escape Mentor and Coordinator of Epic Redemption Fitness, Mike Gruppen, things changed.
“He led me back to God in a sense,” said Mike Rice. “He’s kind of been that guy that just keeps me on my path.”
“It’s a place to get spiritually fit,” said Gruppen. “We talk about having a relationship with Jesus Christ.
“It’s a huge impact for a lot of the kids,” said Ruben Silvas, boxing coach.
The program is now focusing on finding more funding for the youth programs including Westside Boxing.
They would like to raise $20,000 to equip the ring and provide scholarships to send students to competition to keep their focus on moving forward.
“As you can see, I use a lot of duct tape to get things together. So, if we get some funding that would be a beautiful thing,” said Silvas.
The students are hoping the community steps in to support them so other youth can see the value in escaping to a better life.
“A lot of times in this world, there are kids that cannot afford a training session or something,” said Trinidad. “So, that’s why they come to us and that’s what we do. We make them somebody in life.”
“Every day we come in I see friends everywhere so I feel comfortable,” said Allen. “I feel really good about being here at Westside and I feel thankful actually that God gave us the chance to be here at Escape as well.
“We’re looking and praying that more individuals be a part of donating and helping us to provide more work and more opportunities to more kids in the community,” said Watt.
If you would like to help to fund Escape’s boxing and fitness program, or if you are interested in joining the program, check out the link below:
Or, you can call Escape at: 616-796-0538