Double Punches Boxing Club gives at-risk youth a safe space to grow

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Latino Life

In this special edition during Hispanic Heritage Month, we honor the rich and nuanced heritage nurtured by all the generations in our Latino community and the value it brings to the lifestyle of Sonoma County. Click here to read our other Latino Life stories.

The sound of the speed bag echoed through the gym.

It was 1964 in Los Angeles, and a then 10-year-old Richard Lopez wandered into the gym on his way home from school to watch boxers train. The bullies at school had been relentless, beating him up every day in the school yard and stealing his lunch cash.

“I just started coming to watch,” said Lopez, now 64. “One day a coach saw me sitting there and started to show me some moves.”

Soon his new coach wanted to put him in the boxing ring. He entered the ring, nervous. When he turned around, he discovered his opponent to be the same ringleader of the bullies at school. Lopez was beaten — again.

“The coach felt sorry for me, but after more coaching he put me back in the ring with the same guy,” said Lopez. “As soon as the bell rang, I ran up and started punching. The coach had to pull me off him and that guy never bothered me again — but I was sure to never use my boxing skills to be a bully.”

Years passed. At 15, Lopez became a father. At 17, he started to run with local gangs and was shipped off to live with an aunt in Geyserville to stay out of trouble.

“I came here with the idea I could get my own (gang) turf,” said Lopez. Instead, he found a place where he didn’t have to look over his shoulder.

“I felt free and I didn’t have to keep looking behind my back,” said Lopez. “I had freedom to walk around, enjoy the country, go downtown and didn’t have to worry.”

He went back and forth between L.A. and Sonoma County for a while. After he came out of a Safeway with his toddler daughter one day and a man swung a machete in front of them, he decided it was time to move his family north for good.

“I looked at Sonoma County as a safe zone for me, so I came back,” said Lopez.

He got a job with the city of Santa Rosa, working first for the Water Utilities department and then for Parks and Recreation. He married his wife, Maria Lopez, in 1984.

He still loved boxing and did it on the side. Around 1990, a drive-by gang shooting occurred in Roseland and disturbed Lopez.

“I said to the city — ‘you guys have to do something,’” said Lopez. “A friend of mine from the Chamber of Commerce told me: ‘You do something.’ That’s when I started getting a heart to make a difference.”

Lopez didn’t think he had the vision or talent to be a catalyst for change. But he could box. He only had a single-car garage, but he decided to start inviting kids to come box in it.

“He used to have a single-car garage and this dead minivan in it,” said Alex Ventura, a former student of Lopez’s. “Every time we’d push his dead minivan out of the garage and just had two speed bags and two punching bags.”

Kids kept coming to the garage. Eventually, it became a two-car garage. Neighbors complained and so they were able to get a small space on Dutton Avenue. In 2005, Lopez spoke at a Rotary Club meeting and a Salvation Army captain chased him out the door to chat.

Latino Life

In this special edition during Hispanic Heritage Month, we honor the rich and nuanced heritage nurtured by all the generations in our Latino community and the value it brings to the lifestyle of Sonoma County. Click here to read our other Latino Life stories.

The captain proposed a two-year trial partnership for Lopez’s boxing gym with the local Salvation Army campus on Stony Point Road. Lopez agreed, and the Double Punches Boxing Club was reborn.

The program serves at-risk youth in the neighborhood, and contains a tutoring component that requires the kids to do their homework before they are allowed to box. Kids are referred through multiple agencies, including Juvenile Hall, administrative staff and school counselors within the Roseland and Santa Rosa City school districts and the Santa Rosa Violence Prevention Partnership.

“It’s not really about making boxers (although they’ve got state champions) — it’s about building up their character and giving them a healthy place to thrive,” said Maj. Rio Ray, the current commanding officer of Santa Rosa’s Salvation Army branch. “Richard and Maria Lopez’s commitment to seeing lives change through this program is remarkable.”

Sonoma State University student Doris Picazo credits boxing with saving her life.

“I suffer from a lot of anxiety and depression, and am a surviving sexual assault victim,” said Picazo. “Boxing saved my life (and) it’s helped me become a strong, independent woman.”

Picazo found the Double Punches club through a cousin, and began training. Lopez asked Picazo to spar one day, and soon to compete. She participated in her first all-female tournament in 2012.

“In the beginning I was sort of intimidated, but I fell in love with it,” said Picazo. “It was empowering. It also helps me cope and helps my mind stay focused.”

Picazo believes the program has taught her how to connect with the youth in the community and sees the program as a positive influence in their lives.

The gym recently expanded into a larger space at the Salvation Army campus in May 2018. The program services more than 100 local students in multiple class levels ranging from elementary to college age. The majority of students attend Elsie Allen, Piner and Montgomery high schools, as well as Comstock and Cook Middle Schools. The Salvation Army runs a bus system from Elsie Allen, Comstock, Piner and Cook to take students to their campus.

“The kids are growing up and getting involved in boxing instead of getting involved with the gangs, so it makes an impact on their lives,” said Picazo.

Now a senior at Sonoma State University, Picazo is double majoring in sociology and criminal justice.

“I’m looking at pursuing a career in law enforcement,” Picazo said. “I’m interested in becoming a probation officer.”

Double Punches originally received funding through a local philanthropy grant from the DeMeo family, and now receives funding both through the Salvation Army and the Santa Rosa Violence Prevention Partnership’s Measure O grant program.

“The organization brings in a lot of kids who are gang-impacted and teaches them positive skills,” said Salvador Sanchez Strawbridge, a community outreach specialist with the Santa Rosa Violence Prevention Partnership. “Richard comes from a street culture and he’s really good at showing compassion and understanding about where the kids are coming from.”

Sanchez Strawbridge noted the program also is unique in how it focuses on three areas — athletics, academics and personal growth.

“The kids have to do their homework first before they even box. I’ve never seen something that’s a wrap-around service like that in a gym,” said Sanchez Strawbridge. “This is a concentrated effort to deal with the whole person and not just boxing.”

Jonathan Rubio, 18, a recent graduate of Elsie Allen High School, believes the program helped him graduate.

“My mom passed away when I was 10,” said Rubio. “Boxing was there to keep me on the right path and not get sidetracked. My dad and Richard were there to support me.”

Rubio now is competitive in boxing — he is a Junior Olympic 130-pound lightweight champion, and hopes to make Team USA’s youth boxing team this year. He is also plan to attend college next year and is considering a future career in law enforcement.

“Boxing helps me with my focus — when I know I’m not focused I know I can go to the gym and get focused,” said Rubio. “It also helps me with life skills and responsibility.”

Lopez believes developing the whole person is key, as well as creating positive mentors for kids who come from single-parent households.

Lopez feels like the impact of the club is his life’s purpose.

“It’s not how much money you make, it’s how many lives you touch,” said Lopez. “Whatever your purpose is, always put that first.”

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