Peaceful Warriors program KO’s bad behavior, poor grades

The Peaceful Warriors boxing program instills self-confidence and respect in Schenectady youths whil

The first time Mike Molnar got in the boxing ring to spar, “I was afraid to swing,” he said with a chuckle.

What a departure from his previous, extensive fighting experience, when the only thing he was afraid of was not to swing a punch.

This boxing thing, it was different. You had to measure everything — your punches, your footwork, your defense, your wind. Your opponent. Yourself.

Molnar, a 16-year-old junior at Schenectady High School, measures all those things now, and much more, through the Peaceful Warriors program started last fall by Rafael Medina and Nate Wylie, a psychologist and social worker, respectively, at the high school.

The fact that they both work at the high school is incidental; everyone is welcome to the Peaceful Warriors, which is not affiliated with the school district. Peaceful Warriors boxers must follow strict rules, though, that are consistent with standards coach Vince Kittle has set for all the boxers that come through his Schenectady Youth Boxing gym on Albany Street.

Medina and Wylie see enough hard cases at the high school that most of their boxers are students there, kids with problems that Medina and Wylie want to turn around by getting them into the gym and the ring, where discipline, poise and respect for yourself and others are paramount.

The results have been

eye-opening. Medina said the boxers who have stuck with the program have shown dramatic improvement in the three areas that are at the heart of the Peaceful Warriors’ mission statement: school attendance, academic achievement and anger management.

“What we have seen is a direct correlation between active participation in the program and positive outcomes across all three areas,” he said. “We have also seen negative correlation between non-participation in the program and a negative increase in the three areas.

“We’ve seen kids that started, that were significant, significant behavioral issues and academic failures, began with the program . . . A’s and B’s. Unbelievable. Came to school every day, no behavioral incidents. So for reasons X, Y and Z, others dropped from the program, and they go back to their not coming to school, failing grades, etc.”

“Before, in English, I had two F’s, and I went to a B-plus,” said Rahmar Cole, an 18-year-old senior at Schenectady High. “My grades went up.”

Medina and Wylie, an Empire State Games boxer who has been coached by Kittle, are recording data on attendance on a weekly basis, and grades and incidents of bad behavior monthly. They hope to present evidence to the school district, perhaps next school year, that the program works, so they can get funding or some form of sponsorship.

For now, they do what they can through pancake breakfasts, help from community groups like the Rotary Club and the shepherding influence of Kittle and Jeff Christiana, a real estate broker and boxing enthusiast who owns the gym.

“The program took off, but

the funding didn’t, and Jeff and I both liked the program so much, so we said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll find a way to fund it.’ ” Kittle said. “Believe me, we’re not going to let the program go down, it’s way too productive, attendance, behavior, grades, right down the line.

“And they love being here. You can’t come here if you’re having behavior problems.”

The Peaceful Warriors have about 10-15 regular boxers, which is about all the program, which meets at the gym three times a week, can support. They’ve talked to Union College about getting some college students to tutor the boxers.

Some of the Peaceful Warriors will get their first taste of a real bout tonight, when Kittle will host a Jun­ior Olympics card between the Adirondack and Niagara assoc­iations at Crosstown Plaza at 6. Winners will qualify for the regionals in Lake Placid next month.

“I’m anxious for it,” said Molnar, a middleweight. “I’ve been here training for it for awhile. You’re going against somebody you’ve never seen in your life before, and it’s no street, where you have your friends to just jump in. If you’re getting whupped, you’re by yourself. You’ve got to get out of it yourself. It’s a good feeling, though.”

And even though it’s still fighting, it’s a whole new universe for kids like Molnar, who used to frequently get in trouble for “the same thing you’ve always heard about Schen­ectady . . . fights,” he said.

Most of them find out how different boxing is from street fighting quickly enough, the first time they spar.

“I did good, but it felt like I got beat up,” Cole said with a sheepish laugh. “That’s when I knew this is going to be hard work.

“I’ve liked boxing since I was little, and I like the people that I’ve met. A lot of the people here, I knew them, from school, but I didn’t know them as, like, a person. They’re my brothers now. They’re my family.”

“Oh, yeah, I got it good,” Molnar said. “It was a good feeling, though. I was a part of something, and it wasn’t something bad.

“It’s something else you can belong to. Everybody wants to be in a gang. Well, this Peaceful Warrior gang is here, too. I think this is the best gang to be in.”

The first lesson the Peaceful Warriors get is how physically demanding the sport is.

Kittle has seen it all before, and knows all he has to do is tell one of his experienced fighters to absorb the initial wildness, then method­ically punch away on the opponent to show them how long a three-minute round can truly be.

“Usually they show all the signs, do all the gesturing, the talking, but that’s one of the easiest things to correct, because it’s so, so easy to humble them,” he said. “After that first minute and a half, and they’ve done all their damage, my guys come out of their shell, and they start to turn it up on them. It does one of two things, it either runs them out of here, or you can’t get rid of them. It’s like, ‘I’ll never let that happen to me again.’ ”

The program attempts to show the boxers ways to avoid fights outside the gym.

Still, the peer pressure is always there, and sometimes, the toughest fight is to resist the urge to go back to old, destructive habits.

“There’s forces from the community, as far as gang activity, people that maybe view these guys as sellouts, perhaps, or threats,” Medina said. “These guys are doing an excellent job at maintaining composure, conducting themselves as respectable young men. Some of them have had direct threats made against them. One of my guys, someone threw a book at him. We told them, the requirements are very strict. There’s absolutely no fighting.”

“Their reaction was they didn’t like it, because they just want to be out there making trouble, so . . . I’ll let them,” Molnar said.

“I’ve had more drive in school. It’s made me want to get better. It’s had a positive effect. I think a lot clearer, I don’t have to worry about streets no more, I don’t have to worry about gangs. This and school’s what I’m focused on.”

“They say, ‘You’re going to go from street fighting to boxing? You’re soft.’ ” Cole said. “They called me all kinds of names. But it doesn’t bother me anymore. I tell them, ‘Come to the ring, you’ll find out.’ ”

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