HUDSON — Since Ashley Brazee’s daughter started boxing in June, she is no longer being bullied at school.
Ten-year-old Kendra VanWagner, of Philmont, is also more focused and confident, her mother said.
“We brought Kendra since she was being bullied,” Brazee said. “Since she started boxing, she’s had no problems on the bus. She’s not scared to speak up for herself. She’s come a long way with self-confidence.”
VanWagner is one of the youngest students in Todd Smith’s instructional boxing program.
From inside and outside the ring, Smith, of Hudson, has quietly changed the lives of children like Kendra throughout Columbia County for over a decade.
Smith will bring his instructional boxing program to the Hudson Youth Center, 18 S. Third St., two days a week starting May 3. The program, sponsored by the city and its Youth Department, is for children ages 8-12.
Mayor Rick Rector was inspired to bring Smith’s boxing to the city’s Youth Center after learning about the program and meeting Smith’s students.
“The impact he’s had on individuals and the lives in this community is incredible,” Rector said. “And, it’s been quietly done. He’s not looking for anything in return.”
Rector set aside about $4,000 to fund equipment for the program. The funding came from an unused Youth Department equipment grant, which was about to expire, Rector said. Meanwhile, Smith is donating his time, much like he has for the past 13 years.
Many residents are interested in the program, Youth Director Nick Zachos said.
“I don’t think this is a program where we are going to have to worry about attendance,” Zachos said. “We’re probably going to have to turn kids away. I think we’re going to have to find the kids who didn’t get signed up into the program.”IMPACT OF BOXING
Some young boxers train with Smith to compete, others to exercise and some come just to hang out and enjoy the camaraderie the sport encourages.
“It’s like a big family,” Smith said. “It’s a fraternity.”
Smith has worked with more than 600 youth since he partnered with Carlos Santos to begin the program in 2005. When the program first began, Time & Space Ltd., 434 Columbia St., gave the two men initial funding and support. Pierre Anasta has offered youth boxers a free space to train at the Moose Lodge.
Of the 600, about 70 percent competed in competition. About a dozen have gone on to become regional Golden Glove champions. Three have become professional boxers. Nine are members of the military and seven are in law enforcement.
In his training, Smith focuses on discipline, self-esteem and self-confidence.
“[Boxing] carries over to everything — education and life skills,” Smith said.
Jamer Jones, 20, travels from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to attend the program a few times each week.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that if you fall, you get back up every time,” Jones said.
“I don’t teach you to fight,” Smith said. “I teach you self-confidence — to be able to walk away and hold your head up high.”
Smith has worked with children and adults alike, ages 4 to 60. Many of the children continue to train with Smith after they graduate from high school.
U.S. Marine Sgt. Luis Lopez, 25, of New Bern, North Carolina, said he won a state Golden Gloves championship and a silver medal in the Empire State Games with Smith as his trainer. Lopez won, he said, because of the training Smith gave him as a boy growing up in Hudson.
“He really cared about people and changing people’s lives,” Lopez said. “Most of the people in the gym probably came from a rough upbringing. He was the guy that tried to get you out from doing bad things in the streets. He wanted to get kids out of the streets from doing the wrong thing with the law.”
The children Smith trains in the ring are growing up and giving back to their community.
“Hopefully, I will do what he did — teach at a gym,” Lopez said. “I love the sport and I do what I can to stay in it even if I can’t fight myself.”LESSONS OUTSIDE THE RING
Smith has also supported students outside the ring. He keeps his phone on at all times, he said, and gets calls from parents and children at all hours of the day.
“I think the most important thing for them to understand and know is that they have somebody they can come to outside of boxing,” Smith said.
Smith also offers homework help in just about every subject.
“I am not going to help you with math, but I will help you with everything else,” he said with a laugh.
Smith began boxing as a teenager in Hudson. He stuck with it, becoming a student of the sport and eventually a teacher.
“There were guys that were older than me and I got better and developed my self-esteem,” Smith said. “I felt like I had to protect kids that were being bullied.”
Smith won two back-to-back state boxing championships in 1980 and 1981.
“I tell people all the time, you go to a basketball or football game, or a baseball game, you see a fight in the stands,” Smith said. “You go to a boxing match and you never see a fight. You see people training. Nobody fights because it’s a sport that exposes you.”
For Smith, the reward is seeing children boxers grow into young men and women.
“We travel all over New York state, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey,” Smith said. “I get to travel to gyms all over to different areas and people say, ‘Oh there is the Hudson crew. Those are some well-respected young men.’ They are recognized and appreciated.”
To reach reporter Amanda Purcell, call 518-828-1616 ext. 2500, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet to @amandajpurcell.