When you get punched in the face, you get back up.
It's a prevailing lesson taught at the YCAP Boxing Club on Central Avenue. Founded and directed by Joe Smith, the club has produced such nationally successful boxers as Ryan Martin and young Kiwon Tony. More than that, it regularly gives at-risk youth the ability to fight back when life throws a surprising left hook.
Any of the program's boxers, from age 8 and up, can pull on the weighted gloves and step into the ring, preparing for whatever fight comes their way. The unique boxing program, also known as Jabbin' for Jesus, has gained a lot of attention over the years since the club came on the scene in 1999. But its origins are actually in the 1980s, back when boxing was probably the last thing on Joe's mind.
It was August 1987 when Joe Smith figured he should probably just end his life.
He'd even picked the perfect spot to do it, somewhere quiet and out of the way. He was en route to his final destination-45-caliber pistol by his side-when he ran out of gas on North Access Road. At that point he was seething. "I thought I'd screwed up everything in my life and now I'm trying to take my life and I can't even do that right," he says. At that moment, a modern-day Good Samaritan pulled up and offered him a ride. The man asked Joe if he was OK. Joe figured he'd be dead soon anyway. So, he told him everything.
As a two-week old baby, Joe's parents didn't want him. Or his two-year-old sister for that matter. Both were handed over to Bill and Minnie Lee Smith of Chattanooga.
"There was never any secret that we were adopted. [Mom] would say, 'We could've picked any kid in the world but we picked you,'" Joe smiles as he remembers. At age 12 Joe was introduced to his biological father in Rossville. "I walked in and saw this decrepit, dirty drunk man," he recalls.
Until he died when Joe was 15, his father tried to have a relationship with Joe, but the chronic alcoholism got in the way. He was constantly breaking plans and forgetting to attend events like softball games. When Joe was 18, he and his sister made an impromptu trip to Cleveland, Ohio, because they had discovered their birth mother. But the welcome was not warm and, disheartened, they headed for home. "I bet I cried all the way back to Chattanooga, Tennessee," says Joe.
He says he was determined not to end up like his biological parents, until he went to college where he was introduced into the party scene. It was between the ages of 25 and 32, however, that he discovered his real weakness. "Cocaine was what destroyed me. I lived to use and used to live." He had a family, but they were often neglected in pursuit of his other interests. Eventually, he says he'd used so much he couldn't even get high anymore. "I was a miserable, miserable man."
That's when Joe decided to end it.
Somehow, though, the man who had picked Joe up on the side of the road convinced him to see a local doctor, who in turn convinced him to complete 60 days of rehabilitation. "In that 60-day period, God removed all desire for alcohol and drugs," Joe explains. Once he was clean, he got a new job-he'd long lost his former one in the insurance business-working as a third shift tech at an adolescent treatment center. He was no more than a security guard, but it was within those halls that he discovered his passion for working with troubled youth.
The proof for his passion could even be seen in his own family. In 1988, he and his wife Paula began taking in foster children alongside their own two children-19 in all over the years. "It's why I've got all this white hair," he laughs.
In the early 1990s, when his 10-year-old biological son Andy wanted to start boxing recreationally, it was a match made in heaven. "I knew nothing about boxing, but what I learned quickly was that I could reach kids through this sport that I would never have been able to otherwise," he says.
Fighting for a future
After 10 years of working in various positions as a counselor, Joe founded the YMCA Community Action Program in a small storefront in North Chattanooga in 1998. Now, located on Central Avenue, the program is the longest continuously running delinquency prevention program in the state, according to Joe.
Today, it wouldn't be odd to find Joe Smith in juvenile court. He says he is often advocating for a young defendant, "I'll say, 'Judge give us a chance with him at YCAP. Let's try other less drastic interventions first.'" If the judge agrees, the boy will spend up to a year with YCAP, working to better his grades, his skill set and his outlook on life.
And, if he wants to, he can learn to box.
YCAP boxers typically start their day at 5:30 a.m., running laps before school. After school they are back at the YCAP Boxing Club to do some homework, listen to a devotional and then step into the ring for more training. "Boxing is kind of unique in that you get punched in the face and either you quit or fight back, and that's kind of like life," says Joe's son Andy Smith, who is now head boxing coach. The club is not only for the YCAP referrals; it is open to the community. "With our location it seems to get quite a few of the inner-city kids, but we get kids from all over," Andy says.
According to him, 90 percent of the physical challenge is just getting the kids in shape, but the real challenge is dealing with what's going on in their personal life. "A lot of them face so much difficulty at home when there's no stability. We try to teach them perseverance-that goes into the fact that a lot of the kids we work with have been dealt hands that aren't necessarily fair," says Andy.
"Boxing is a very tough sport. It's something that requires discipline, respect, hard work, courage," says Joe. "What you hope happens is that they take those same lessons out of the boxing gym into math class and science class and into personal relationships. A kid's eyes are more succinct than are their ears. If a parent is being irresponsible, not holding down a job, getting drunk ... the kid sees that. What do you think the kid is going to pay more attention to?"
One former boxer, Dekota Careathers, now age 25, says he voluntarily got involved in the boxing program around the age of 9, explaining he wanted to be tough. He remembers the days of intense training before and after school, laughing, "It was all day, every day-I had no time to get in trouble at all."
Today Dekota is father to a three-year-old son and working toward college. "Without boxing, being around Joe Smith and Andy Smith, I don't think I would be the person I am today. I don't think I would be the father I am; I don't think I would have pursued college. They had a big impact on my life," he says. "Boxing gave me the skills to be humble, to strive for something and continue to better myself. It gave me a better outlook on life."
And Dekota's not the only one.
"There's days they will cuss you and be disrespectful, but then there are days when a kid comes to the front door... and says, 'I just needed to stop and tell you how much I love you and what a difference you have made in my life,'" says Joe. "It's a phone call from heaven to remind me why I do what I do."
The real success story
Joe doesn't take much credit for the work done through the program; if you asked him, he'd say, "Everything that has happened to me has just been a God thing."
That includes being asked to participate with the 2008 Olympic boxing team as team manager in Beijing. "Boxing is a sport that often draws tough inner-city kids," says Joe. "There were 24 athletes on the team from inner cities all over America." For a year before the Olympic Games, Joe lived with the team in Colorado Springs while they trained, traveling with them all over the world as they faced off against opponents. He was responsible for all of the athletes as well as public relations with the media. As he puts it, he was the team dad.
Though he says he's proud of his local boxers that have succeeded in the sport, he says it's not the most important thing. "Everybody that comes in here is not going to make a great boxer, though we have had several that have done well nationally. Every Olympian starts in his hometown, in a grassroots boxing program," says Joe. "We want these kids to do well competitively, but we want the lessons they learn in the gym to translate into other areas of their life."
In the end, Joe knows it's up to the kids who they want to be. "Everybody needs another chance. I think I've made pretty good on my second chance. I can relate to the struggles they feel ... no daddy, poverty, drug addiction. We do the best we can do. We love on these kids, provide resources, try to be a conduit to change their life, but I'm not responsible for where the story ends."
To get involved or to volunteer visit jabbinforjesus.org