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Ding! Ding! New youth boxing program piloted by local police

By John Hartsock

jhartsock@altoonamirror.com

For more than 40 years, the Altoona Boxing Club, under the direction of Johnny Robertson, served well over 10,000 young people in the community who benefited from both the physical training and personal self-discipline that is involved in boxing, free of charge.

Randy Feathers was one of those people.

As a youngster, Feathers trained under Robertson’s direction, and as an adult, Feathers became a trainer for the Altoona Boxing Club’s fighters himself.

Robertson’s retirement as a trainer, and the club’s subsequent closure in 2017, left a huge void in the community — particularly among the low-income youth who joined the club for recreation, training and physical exercise.

Feathers is seeking to fill that void by spearheading the Operation Our Town organization’s pilot Cops and Boxing program at the Gorilla House Gym.

“Johnny’s thing was that he would never charge the kids,” Feathers said of Robertson, who was a recipient of the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame’s Community Service Award in 2000. “A lot of inner-city kids entered his program. These kids had no money at all, and they’d come to his gym, and he’d figure out a way to pay for everybody.

“That’s sort of what I want to do now,” Feathers added. “There are kids out there who can’t afford to box, and we’re able to bring them in without charging them. Our program is a (continuation) of Johnny’s program.”

Feathers is in a unique position to help. He’s on the board of Operation Our Town, has a lifetime of experience with the sport of boxing and is a veteran law enforcement official.

Feathers is currently a detective with the Blair County District Attorney’s office and had previously spent 25 years working with the Pennsylvania state Attorney General’s office.

Funded by grant

The Cops and Boxing program is currently being funded by a $2,000 grant from Operation Our Town that pays for gym time, training and equipment for the fighters — boys and girls who range in age from 7 to 18.

Boxing training sessions are held on Tuesdays and Thursday evenings at the Gorilla House Gym, with Feathers and Kevin Winkler currently tutoring the program’s approximately 15 youngsters who range in age from 7 to 15. Former professional fighter Tommy Wilt also trains the approximately 15 adolescents who range in age from 16 to 18.

Not all of the youths in the program require financial help for their boxing training, and Feathers is welcoming everybody who is interested to join the program.

“Our target area is kids from lower incomes, but we have kids from all different incomes,” Feathers said. “The kids do enjoy this. Kevin is good with them, and I think that I’m good with them. We’re very careful with what we do.

“We just don’t throw kids in there to get hurt, and we want them to enjoy the sport. It is a sport, not a brawl.”

What boxing teaches

The self-discipline and overall sense of self-esteem that youngsters can attain through training in a rigorous sport like boxing can help to fill a personal need that may be otherwise missing.

Feathers said that many individuals who trained under Robertson in the Altoona Boxing Club went on to become accomplished professionals in such fields as medicine, journalism, law enforcement and boxing, as well as other notable career endeavors.

“I think it’s crucial, especially for kids from broken homes who may not get that discipline at home,” Feathers said.

“Those kids are dying for that, and the earlier that you can reach them, the better. This affects all walks of their lives — from their schooling, to how they act on the outside, to how they treat and respect other people.”

And participation in a constructive, physically demanding sport like boxing keeps youngsters busy and can also help them to avoid involvement in self-destructive things like substance abuse and criminal activity.

“I do a lot of drug talks with kids, because that’s my job, and I hate the term at-risk youths, because I think that every youth is at risk,” Feathers said. “I’ve seen so many drug overdoses and drug deaths. I’ve seen the problems in million-dollar homes as well as poor homes.

“It doesn’t matter what a family’s income level is, (everybody is still) going to have problems in life,” Feathers added. “That’s why it’s so important for kids to get some discipline and guidance as to where they’re going with their lives.”

Gorilla House owner Ray Ross is a former boxer and police officer who appreciates the benefits of the program for the area’s youth.

“It gives them an outlet instead of running the streets and getting into trouble,” Ross said. “This gives them something else to occupy their time. Guys like Randy provide a good example and a great mentor for the kids. It’s a great program, and I’m glad that they are able to do it.”

Winkler said that the Altoona Youth Boxing Club was a godsend to him as a youngster, and he hopes to pay things forward by training young boxers with the Cops and Boxing program.

“My dad died when I was real young,” Winkler said. “When I was 14 years old, I started boxing for Johnny Robertson at the Altoona Boxing Club, and he became like a father to me and changed my whole life around. Now, I’m trying to help kids with boxing and life. I try to help everybody that I can.”

Girls learn ropes, too

Winkler said that the young boys and girls in the program spar together, and that some of the girls are often more technically sound in boxing than some of the boys are.

“The boys and girls work together,” Winkler said. “We show them how to do punches, and we have them spar with each other. Some of the girls are pretty good little boxers. They throw punches and know how to throw body shots in a way that some of the boys don’t understand.

“Right now, we have a few more girls in the program than we have boys, because some of the boys who would be normally be interested in boxing are playing junior high football,” Winkler added. “Some kids today aren’t motivated to do things, but these kids are motivated. They all try really hard.”

Police chipping in

Some area policemen have begun distributing vouchers to youngsters to get them interested in the program. The youngsters can bring the vouchers to the Gorilla House and give them to Ross, who then submits the vouchers to the Operation Our Town organization for reimbursement.

Dave Reese, the Logan Township Chief of Police, is a former Altoona Boxing Club member who is a big advocate of the new Cops and Boxing program.

Reese has been giving out the vouchers for the program to his patrolmen to distribute to area youngsters who they encounter during the course of their work days.

“We want to promote this,” Reese said. “It’s a great program, and it’s a good way to get kids active and over to the gym. Boxing is a very difficult sport that teaches discipline that kids can take with them through life to help them deal with challenges that are both physical and mental. I think that’s a very positive thing.”

Feathers said that any youngster who is interested in boxing in the program can also contact the Gorilla House directly at 944-9412 to enroll.

The $2,000 Operation Our Town grant has been very helpful, but Feathers said that donations from the public to keep the program funded over the long haul will definitely be welcomed.

Donations can be sent in care of Ray Ross and made out to the Gorilla House to help to continue to cover the cost of the program. Donors should specify Cops and Boxing on the check’s memo line and mail the check to Ross at the Gorilla House, 3200 Fairway Drive, Altoona, Pa. 16602.

“Some of these kids don’t have the 10 bucks that would be required for two sessions of boxing training each week,” Feathers said. “Some of these kids don’t have 10 bucks just to eat.

“If anybody wants to assist with financing, we could certainly use the money, because I expect that $2,000 grant will eventually run out,” Feathers added. “It’s amazing what boxing does for self-discipline, and I’d like to see these kids always have the opportunity to train and learn.”

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