He’s been in the ring for almost an hour, but now he’s ready for an interview with a magazine writer. He seizes a chair and leans back spreading his arms and legs to take up as much space as possible, the body language of an alpha male. The fighter’s name is Ernie Cuevas, Jr., and he’s been boxing for 10 years. He also just turned 14. Do the math. A few minutes earlier Ernie Jr. was sparring with fteen-year-old Khaliid Johnson. In the ring, the two boys glared at each other with pure rage. At one point Ernie Jr. backed Khaliid into a corner and delivered a fury of lightning fast punches to his midsection. Khaliid absorbed the attack and with some agile footwork danced out of the corner and back into the center of the ring. Ernie Jr. immediately began stalking him again as someone yelled “Time.” The boys then pulled off their gloves and disappeared through the ropes chatting like best friends, which they are. During the interview, Ernie Jr. is so serious and intense that the writer has to keep reminding himself he’s talking to a kid. How long have you been boxing? “Since I was four.” Are you ranked? “I’m number-two in the nation for my age and weight.” What goes through your mind when you enter the ring? “When I step in the ring, all I’m thinking about is hurting you,” he says.
Eernie Jr. and Khaliid train in an unadorned building on Pendleton Street in West Greenville. You could drive by the place a hundred times without ever knowing what’s going on inside. There are no windows, and the doors remain locked most hours. A sign posted on the front reads “Center for Educational Equity (CEE)” and under that “Greenville Boxing Club.” The names are listed in order of importance. On a recent summer’s day, the place seems abandoned. Then at about a quarter after 4pm, several kids appear and linger on the covered porch. Most are black, a few are Hispanic. Some were dropped off by a parent, but many walked. A few minutes later a man arrives and unlocks the door. This is Ernie Cuevas, Sr., who along with Shakir Robinson, operates the facility, which is a combination boxing gym and after- soon about 40 boys and girls, from grade school to teenagers, are doing what kids do best: being loud. Ernie leads everyone downstairs to the basement, which is the complete opposite in look and feel of the upstairs. Shelves lined with books dominate one wall, while in the center of the room several cafeteria-style tables are connected to form one long workspace. “Everyone has to come down here at least thirty minutes,” Cuevas tells me. “Well, during the summer we’re a little more lenient, but during the school year you have to do thirty minutes.” Cuevas explains that ‘doing thirty minutes’ means a half-hour of tutoring with the CEE staff, which includes Ernie, Robinson, Ernie’s wife, and several school teachers and parents who volunteer their time.
It may seem a little confusing at first, but the CEE is basically an after-school academic program that happens to be located in a boxing gym, or vice versa. Kids can come and get help with schoolwork and then take off, or they can hang around and work out and socialize. If they want to box, that’s an option too. And if they’re good enough, they can join the club’s competitive boxing team. But the academic component is a requirement. “Kids can choose what they want to do here,” Robinson says. “But whatever they choose, we give them our full attention.”
The CEE was created in 2000 by Robinson and his mother Leola Robinson-Simpson, the former director of ISP Tutoring and Support Services for students at Greenville Technical College. “We started the program as a Saturday school,” Robinson says. “My mom was on the Greenville County School Board, and we wanted to do something to help kids with low test scores.” The CEE Saturday School was held at the Phillis Wheatley Center for the first year then at Greenville Tech until 2009 when the program moved to its current location. The Greenville Boxing Club, which had also been located at the Phillis Wheatley Center, found itself without a home when the center was restructured in 2007. Robinson had trained at the club alongside Greenville resident Lamar “Kidfire” Parks, who in 1993 became the world’s number-one ranked contender in the middleweight division. When the CEE moved into its own space in 2009, Robinson saw an opportunity to combine academics and boxing and at the same time revive the Greenville Boxing Club.
While boxing and physical fitness are important components of the program, Cuevas and Robinson always put the main focus on academics and life skills. “It’s not just homework,” Robinson tells me, “It’s about learning to look someone in the eye and shake their hand. We teach these kids confidence; we teach them to be leaders.” Cuevas and Robinson expect the older kids to act as examples to the younger ones. “They are the production managers,” Cuevas says. “The younger ones see how well the older kids are doing and want to follow that path.” Ultimately what Cuevas and Robinson have created is a community. Watching the kids jump rope or punch the heavy bags or spar in the ring, one can’t help but think this is the highlight of their day. “You know a lot of these kids don’t have a father gure,” Robinson says. “But here, these kids support each other, they pick each other up.”
This summer the CEE offered an Academic Boot Camp where kids would run, then be led through a calisthenics routine, then head downstairs for vocabulary, math, science, and art. “We had an art teacher from Clemson come in,” Robinson says. “He taught the kids basic art skills like coloring and shading.” According to Robinson, some of the kids weren’t taking the art lesson seriously. “I told them these were important skills,” he says. “When I told them these skills could help improve their grades in other areas, they started paying attention.”
During the school year, Cuevas and Robinson ask the kids to show to their school progress reports and report cards. The kids reveal them with either hesitation or pride. Cuevas lowers his head and squints his eyes. “You don’t want to come downstairs with us if you have a bad report card,” he says. Robinson laughs and adds, “Nah, we just remind them of the importance of academics. It’s all positive. It’s nothing but positive here.”
For many of the kids who regularly hang out at the CEE, any type of positive influence is important. For a kid, life in West Greenville is tough. According to the US Census in 2012, the median household income in the neighborhood surrounding the CEE was $20,000. In the neighborhood on the other side of Pendleton near Woodside Mill, it was $9,700. Let that number sink in for a moment. At Carolina Academy High School, the public high school for West Greenville, 80 percent of students were eligible for free lunch last year. It’s not a huge leap to assume that the school breakfast and lunch might be the only two meals some of those kids get each day. Carolina Academy also reports an on-time graduation rate of just 62.4 percent, well below South Carolina’s average of 74 percent. And on the end-of-course tests, only 55.7 perecnt of Carolina Academy’s students scored 70 or above. According to Robinson, the graduation rate for kids who regularly come to the CEE is 100 percent.
While there is a lot of excitement in some circles about West Greenville’s impending gentrification, the neighborhood’s kids aren’t exactly the beneficiaries of new condos, coffee shops, or art studios. For the kids in the community, the CEE is providing a much-needed social outlet. “This gives kids a place to go instead of just being on the street,” Robinson says. “They have a sense of family here. There’s a core group, and they’re like glue.”
The socioeconomic inequities that Cuevas and Robinson are trying to combat sometimes force them to dig into their own pockets. “Say we take eight kids to a boxing competition, and someone there is selling ten dollar t-shirts,” Robinson says. “Four of the kids will have money to buy a shirt, and four won’t. That’s when I look at Ernie and say, ‘Twenty/twenty?’” Both Robinson and Cuevas mime pulling out their wallets and removing bills. Cuevas says that on longer competition trips, those requiring hotel stays and restaurant stops, the digging can get even deeper. “On those trips, Coach Robinson will say to me, ‘One- fifty/one-fifty?’ I may have to put off a personal bill for a month, but we always make it work,” he says.
The CEE is a nonprofit organization, but it does ask those attending to donate $25 per month. “That money goes toward gear and equipment,” says Robinson. “But if someone can’t donate the $25, we don’t stop them at the door.” The center receives a few other donations here and there, and Cuevas and Robinson regularly try to raise money to take the kids to boxing tournaments and shows,but that money is more of a trickle than a steady stream. Recently Cuevas and Robinson had hoped to be able to fly the competitive team to a boxing show in San Diego, but the funds just weren’t there. Instead, the men rented a van and took turns behind the wheel. “We drove day and night,” Robinson says. “It was a long ride, but we did it.”
During the day, Cuevas builds and repairs hearing aides for Hearing Health Care Center, and Robinson works as a certified personal trainer. Both admit the rigors of their day jobs sometimes get the best of them, and by 4:30 they are exhausted as they head to the CEE. But as Robinson explains, “When you pull up and see 15 kids waiting for you at the door, that’s some real motivation.”
What Cuevas and Robinson are doing is not about boxing—it’s about trying to right a wrong. They’ve seen the inequities, the bad luck, and the low expectations for kids in the community, and they have decided not to stand for it. They’re teaching these kids by example and showing them that you can be strong, you can be tough, but most importantly you’d better be smart. The CEE is giving kids more than just a place to hang out—it’s giving them a place to belong and reminding them of their value. Whether it’s a tutoring center in a boxing gym or a boxing gym in a tutoring center, the Center for Educational Equity represents a bold exception to the typical after-school program. “Here, we give them some of that tough street love,” says Cuevas. “But I hug most of them before they go out the door.”
Originally published September 2014.