By Sandra McNeill, WWJ
Eating out at restaurants, Khali Sweeney rarely got what he wanted.
Sweeney went through school in Detroit with undiagnosed dyslexia and never learned to read.
At restaurants, Sweeney said, he couldn’t read the menu.
“You just ask the guy next to you what he’s having and you just eat what he’s eating,” Sweeney joked. “Then when you eat it, it’s like the nastiest thing I’ve ever had in my life!”
For most people, it’s difficult to imagine going to class each day and never learning to read. Sweeney’s story shows it’s easier than you may think.
“All you had to do was act like you’re not paying attention, act like you’re asleep, start a fight….I think it was either the 11th or 12th grade, I saw my report card, it was good grades. It was like…’what person gave me…who is this?'” Sweeney said. “How did I get good grades and I didn’t even know the teachers.”
Using the skills he taught himself to get by in school, he was able to get by in life for another two decades. He finally began to learn to read in his late thirties, when he turned his life around. “I struggle with it all the time,” he said. “For me, it’s just being patient.”
He’s not alone in the struggle to learn to read as an adult. According to The National Institute for Literacy, roughly 47 percent of residents in the city of Detroit are functionally illiterate. Sweeney thought about them as he struggled through jobs cleaning toilets and working security. He began to put money away. The idea was to help young students like himself get a leg up in life.
Ten years ago, Sweeney started an after-school program that he calls the Downtown Boxing Gym. He wanted kids to have a safe place to go and get them off the streets. Most kids who attend the program don’t box. Sweeney said he came up with the name because, “Nobody’s going to go say ‘let’s go to a reading program,’ so we called it a gym and people came.”
The first order of business was to make sure the students were fed. “In our old gym, I’ve seen at least two to three kids pass out, because they haven’t ate.”
Sweeney had experience himself as a child going to school with what he calls ‘sugar sandwiches’ or nothing at all. “I’ve lived in a house where there is no lights, water or gas. I know what it’s like to wake up with rats on your leg, trying not to move so you don’t get bit. I know what that’s like. There’s kids who go to school every day with these secrets.”
In addition to a place to eat, the Downtown Boxing Gym has teachers who work with students whom he says others have given up on, teaching them reading and math skills. Students often come in with elementary reading-level skills, Sweeney said, and they come out honor students.
“We have a 100 percent graduation rate, I can tell you that. All of our kids have gone on to graduate high school, gone on to college, or trade school or currently have great jobs.”
The gym has classrooms, a state of the art kitchen, a library and even an outdoor play area. There are vans that transport students to the program each afternoon.
The success of the program has created a long waiting list. That’s why Sweeney is hoping that the gym wins the CNN Heroes award this year, which comes with a $100,000 reward.
He encourages everyone to vote for the gym at CNNHeroes.com.