For the past seven months KUT has focused on the Dove Springs neighborhood in southeast Austin. We’ve been looking at issues facing this largely poor, immigrant community: access to healthcare, educational issues, affordable housing – and how organizations and individuals are trying to bring change.
In October, we went to a boxing ring at Mendez Middle School. An after-school program there is teaching the kids boxing as a way to provide some structure after classes let out.
We went back to the ring recently – and found quite a few things had changed.
Benjamin Munoz started boxing last summer. In October, he was just learning how to spar. He said boxing was tough; in the past, he gave up on sports that were too difficult. But this time, his coach told him not to.
“I was working real hard, and didn’t want to give up,” Munoz says. “It gets too hard sometimes, and Coach Casey he told me everything is always going to get hard, so I stuck with boxing.”
Munoz is on the small side for a seventh grader. He weighs less than 90 pounds and has a short buzz cut. He says his size has made him a target for bullies in the past, but boxing has helped – although he tries not to gets in fights.
“I don’t want to get in fights out of school so I could get in trouble,” Munoz says. “I don’t want to have a bad record and they’re not going to accept me into college or something.
Munoz stuck with boxing throughout the fall. But then, he and his mother moved to Leander for a few months. Munoz was started at a new school – and stopped boxing.
It’s pretty common for students at economically disadvantaged schools to leave or come back in the middle of a school year. Twenty-three percent of students at Mendez left at one point during the 2011–2012 school year.
“Some of our families will move back and forth. We call it south-to-north-corridor transient,” Leonor Vargas, director of the Family Resource Center at Mendez Middle School, says. “Some of our families go from here in South Austin all the way north to Rundberg.”
Right now, she says Mendez has 40 fewer students than it did in December. One reason is the Halloween floods. But it’s more common for families to leave because they can't find affordable housing, or because a parent loses their job.
“This is our resilient working poor. They seek employment in construction, fast food, custodial … [it’s] almost like the migratory concept to find jobs,” Vargas says.
She says the after-school program provides structure for students without a stable home life.
“They also get a dinner, a meal before they go home, and they get snacks and that way to distract and deal with some of that stress they’re dealing with at home,” Vargas says. “The school is a safe haven from 7:30 [a.m.] to almost 6 o’clock at night.”
Munoz says he came back to Mendez Middle School in January. He wasn’t the only one in the boxing program who left. There are fewer students, and they only practice a couple days a week now. The lack of practice has discouraged Munoz.
“When you take a break you have to kinda get yourself back in that groove, back in that rhythm,” says new boxing coach Roderick Ramos. The last coach, Casey Ramos, left to go back to college full time. That’s when Casey’s brother, Roderick, took over as coach.
“I have been part of the program since the beginning. But I’m more at the head of it now because he’s not here,” Ramos says. “I’m taking over the coaching of Mendez.”
Getting back in the ring has been tough for Munoz, and he says there are days when he wants to quit.
“When I first sparred I was really tired and I was like, ‘Man I’mma quit this. I’m not going to come,’” Munoz says.
One reason Munoz says he stays in the program is financial. The after-school program provides free bus passes, and his mother doesn’t always have enough gas money to come pick him up.
But the other reason is motivation.
“If I want to I can quit, but at the same time I have to keep going, where am I going to go in life if I don’t do something like this?” Munoz says. “I already started, so why not end it?”
Munoz still hasn’t had his first amateur match. Coach Ramos says he’s hoping he’ll participate in his first fight later this spring.