Harvest of Dreams begins in the boxing ring|Proposed alternative school would aid struggling teenagers

Published 7:06 am Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Staff Writer

What does the brutal, yet refined, sport of boxing have to do with the success of today’s disenfranchised youth?
Everything, according to Harvest of Dreams founder Donald Keys.
Keys plans on making HOD an alternative school for students between the ages of 13 and 19 struggling in the Beaufort County School system. The backbone of the proposed school is a boxing program that teaches the discipline of the sport and tries to translate it to real-life situations.
The school is designed to be a hybrid between the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics and a boxing club. Similar to the NCSSM, HOD will focus on math and science training and how it translates to jobs such as engineering and researching renewable products.
“You’ve got yourself a pretty good combination to help kids get through some significant challenges,” said HOD Executive Director Dr. Priscilla Denney.
Keys said the idea to start a youth boxing club came to him through past experiences.
The HOD founder came up in a rough Washington neighborhood. Although he was a gifted athlete, Keys said he still found his way into the streets, where he became a substance abuser.
“They (coaches and teachers) just looked at me as an athlete,” he said.
When Keys hit rock bottom and checked into rehab, he realized with the help of some caring individuals that life was deeper than sports and street life.
“Someone took the time to say, ‘Donald, you are somebody,’” he said. “The only difference between Donald Keys and the average Joe out there on the street is that someone took five minutes of their time to show me that they care.”
Now, Keys wants to provide the same support for others in similar situations, using boxing as a teaching tool. The fundamentals of boxing teach non-violence and self-discipline.
Although Keys was never a boxer, he knows fighters that come from similar environments.
“I saw how differently they were because of the training and discipline that tends to be in boxing,” he said.
That’s when the idea came forth. Keys’ progressive idea, coupled with the fact that the closest public boxing facility is in Wilson, got Denney on board.
The program is still developing, with immediate attention being put on the school’s location. HOD’s Board of Directors is meeting with the Beaufort County School Board today to discuss the possibility of using the vacant P.S. Jones/John Small School gym for the alternative school.
HOD’s board has already been before the School Board three times, but the School Board has yet to make a decision on the vacant gym property. The alternative program has the backing of Washington Mayor Judy Meier Jennette, who expressed her support in a letter to School Board Chairman Robert Belcher.
“It would certainly benefit the school system and the community to refocus the energy of our troubled youth into a positive and productive outlet,” the letter read.
Finding a location for the school is part of an 18-month plan to get the program up and running. The program is relying mainly on private funding to start the school, because public funding comes with to many restrictions, Denney said.
If government-funded, the program would not be able to use peer-on-peer counseling to help students with day-to-day issues due to privacy laws. Denney said she feels very strongly about the effectiveness of peer-on-peer counseling, and wants it to be available to all students.
The 18-month fund drive starts in earnest with a reverse raffle at the Washington Civic Center on Friday. Tickets for the reverse raffle can be purchased by contacting Keys at 252-945-7115. HOD plans to hold similar events in the near future.
“As long as I’m involved with this, I will find the funding for this program,” said Denney.
The program has enlisted the help of professional trainer Don Turner to start the boxing club. Turner, who has trained boxing legends such as Evander Holyfield, Larry Holmes and Mike McCallum, will be consulting the board on a regular basis.
“He will help us bring out the best in terms of boxing,” Denney said.
Turner said he wants to help because he believes in Keys and the program’s mission.
“He’s (Keys) lived what these kids have lived through, so he’s got the answer that they think they’ve got.”
The boxing club will be staffed by volunteers, initially, Denney said . A membership fee for the club will cost $50 a year.
In addition to the educational and boxing programs, the school will offer a personal essentials program, treatment center program (i.e. drug counseling), life skills program and networking program.
The networking program will help integrate youth advocacy groups in the county, such as the local Boys &Girls clubs, according to Denney.
“We don’t want to shut them (local youth organizations) down. We want to unify them,” she said.
And that’s what Keys is preaching with HOD — unity and love.
“Harvest of Dreams is for anybody,” he said. “We want to be an alternative to training schools, to jails, to prisons. We want to give them something that most of them never get, and that’s love.”
To learn more about Harvest of Dreams, visit www.harvestofdreams.org.