At-risk youth learn life skills at Monmouth County gym

Nine-year-old Caleb Brown shadowboxes before getting in the ring at Southpaw Gym.

“When I come here, like just being here sometimes, it makes me happy,” he said.

Brown’s part of Ringside Rescue Advocates for At-Risk Youth, a nonprofit launched by gym owners Vic and Stephanie Lashley. Their goal is to empower and educate kids and teens through mixed martial arts and boxing. Coach Vic is a former juvenile corrections officer.

“I saw them coming from really deteriorating environments. They would talk to me a lot about their problems at home and things they’ve gone through. They felt that they had no way out other than crime,” said Vic.

That’s the reason the Army veteran and his wife launched the nonprofit in 2007. They wanted to provide a positive environment for kids and teens in urban areas. Ringside Rescue participants like Caleb are integrated with the gym’s other clients and can practice there six days a week.

“It’s not about fighting. This is a sport, boxing is a sport, so everything is contained in here,” Vic said. “The discipline of boxing is somewhat like life; it’s a struggle when you begin, but once you get better, you get more proficient on skill set, repetition, things of that nature.”

The young athletes go through a rigorous warm-up at the start of each session.

“It makes me feel good because I have really bad asthma, so I can work on that so I can be better with my asthma, so I can move more,” said 11-year-old Michael Dickerson.

“It helped me develop as a person and as a man,” said Jordan Mackiewicz, a coach at Southpaw Gym.

Mackiewicz was in Ringside Rescue as a teen. He now coaches young boxers.

“It’s going to get you to stay focused. It’s going to get you to also set goals,” he said.

Vic says he wants the gym to be a safe haven for the kids, which is why they also have an after school program called Hooks & Books. Kids are welcome Monday through Friday for three hours each day. They can work on their homework and also work with a tutor, if need be. Mentors are available to focus on life skills and career skills, and the kids also do community service projects through the nonprofit.

“I’m doing better in school. My grades are improving,” said 9-year-old Devon Sesler.

“You have to have a balance, not just the physical. There has to be a mental aspect. They have to be tutored, coached and guided,” said Vic.

The nonprofit offers a number of other programs. The coach relies on private donations. Participants either pay a small fee or nothing at all, depending on household income.

“I think this is blessing to be here,” said Sessler.

After Caleb’s sparring match, he hugged his opponent, who also happens to be his friend.

“It’s important because we’re family in here,” said 7-year-old Eucario Hernandez-Lazo.

Vic hopes to grow his family by eventually expanding the nonprofit’s programs.

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