Alex Long remembers seeing the change happen in his 8-year-old son’s best friend. It was hard to watch, unfurling suddenly after the boy witnessed his older brother being “gunned down” in the street.
“He was angry; he would snap on his grandmother. He was getting suspended at school. His grades changed,” Long says. “One day, he was at my house and I said, ‘This summer is going to be crazy. It’s not a good idea for you all to be outside. If there was a way for me to find some activities for you all to do, what would it be?’ They all said boxing.”
From there, Long’s desire to somehow help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds grew into a real plan to provide a place for them to go, to burn off steam, to be around caring adults, to feel heard and loved – and to be safe.
Long will use his OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship to build, strengthen and expand the McElderry Youth Redemption Boxing Program, for youth ages 10-15. Despite the fact that there is no wellness center or gym in the East Baltimore community in which he works, Long has been serving young people there – making do in a small, donated space, with what few resources he could pull together – since 2015.
“There are no activities in my community,” says Long, who lives in McElderry Park, “just a few afterschool programs that are very selective about who gets in. I know I’m filling a real need because I never have to advertise or market this program. I passed out 75 flyers when I first started, and it’s just amazing; once the kids found out about it, I have never had to distribute another flyer. They just come.”
Long can relate to the young people who stream through the door looking for something active to do and someone caring to confide in. He was born in Baltimore but spent most of his youth in Prince George’s County, in foster care.
“Sports changed my life,” he says. “I played football, rugby; I ran track. It gave me an outlet for the issues I had from being in foster care and being separated from my family.”
So he knew a sports-related community gathering spot would help kids like him, with significant issues related to trauma, anger and other challenges.
The program includes boxing and other fitness-related activities, but, with the help of two other adult volunteers, has a heavy emphasis on mentorship, leadership development and mental health.
“I have a couple kids who come and don’t box or work out at all,” Long says. “They just like being here because it’s a safe haven. We try to use this as form of therapy and give the kids an opportunity to express themselves and really find their way to who they really are.”
“My coaches had an impact on me growing up,” Long added. “So I knew I could have an impact on them, without being in their face telling them 24/7 what they’re doing wrong, because they hear that enough. They know I’m one of them, so they know I’m coming to you out of concern, because I care about you, not trying to put you down.’”
This spring, Long’s younger sister was murdered, by a teenager. Her death rocked him but didn’t derail him; instead it served to solidify his mission.
“I’m looking to change the lot where she was gunned down into a park and playground. Our focus should be on life, not on street code and street justice,” he says. “The dude who shot my sister was 18. He was a kid. Now she’s gone and his life is ruined. With this fellowship, I’m trying to change things. I want to help these kids learn to take those reactionary emotions and channel them into something positive.”