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Cathy Free
South Salt Lake police officer Mitch Howard enjoys a few laughs with two young friends at the Pete Suazo Boxing Center.

SOUTH SALT LAKE — It all started 14 years ago with a couple of hockey sticks rattling around in the trunk of Jerry Silva’s patrol car.

With nowhere for South Salt Lake’s youths to hang out after school in a safe and productive environment, Silva and a few other police officers decided to close off a neighborhood street one winter so kids could play hockey.

“We’d just started a Police Athletic League,” recalls Silva, “but we had nowhere to run it. So I turned the back of my car into a league office and we just went with it. For years, we fought to give the kids something better — a place in the community to call their own.”

Two years ago, when Silva finally got that place — an old elementary school converted into a boxing center named after Utah’s first Hispanic state senator, Pete Suazo — he saw immediate rewards.

Boys and girls he had once arrested for truancy and vandalism started showing up to run laps and spar with friends in the ring. Instead of roaming the streets while their parents were at work, teens finished their homework in the gym to keep grades of “C” and above and be allowed to compete in boxing tournaments.

“This place is so important — it’s made a huge difference in the lives of these kids,” says Silva, 43, who grew up in South Salt Lake in a time of “more opportunities and more positive things to do.”

“When the high school (Granite High) closed, this town really lost its sense of community,” he says. “We saw crime go up. People stopped caring. Without the Pete Suazo Center, I’m not sure what we’d do. Every kid needs an opportunity to progress in life. This is a place where they know they’ll fit in.”

With the gym about to hold a series of fundraisers to pay for new equipment and defray costs, Silva and another South Salt Lake officer, Mitch Howard, an assistant boxing coach, wanted to talk about the community center’s importance in Free Lunch in the hope of enticing more people to pitch in.

Howard knows firsthand the benefits of lacing up a pair of boxing gloves and devoting hours to practice. Growing up poor in a violent neighborhood in New Orleans, he took up boxing and developed enough confidence and ambition to avoid the drug scene that landed many of his friends behind bars.

Pursuing a career in law enforcement, he ended up in Utah 25 years ago and joined the Sandy City Police Department. Two and a half years ago, when he took a job in South Salt Lake as a school resource officer and learned there was a new P.A.L. boxing program, “I was right on it,” he says.

“Boxing is good exercise and good discipline,” he says, “and it can help turn a troubled life around. There’s nothing for kids on the street except people waiting to victimize them. They need to be involved in something that brings them some pride.”

Most of the kids who show up after school to box come from broken homes or households where both parents are working two jobs to pay the rent, says Howard, who is saddened by the stories but inspired by the young athletes' courage.

“I’ve had hardened wanna-be gangsters come into my office, shut the door and cry their eyes out because their parents just got shipped back to Mexico,” he says. “I’ve had kids tell me their family was evicted and they have no money. I’ve had girls come to me and tell me that they’re pregnant. We try to get these kids the help they need, but it can be heartbreaking. All you can do is let them know that you care.”

Silva says he often awakens in the night and wonders how to help a particular child going through a difficult time. “In a lot of ways, these kids feel like my own,” he says. “To have somebody to trust is huge to them. To me personally, helping them and knowing them has been richly rewarding. They’ve brought a lot of joy to my life.”

Information on how to help the Pete Suazo Boxing Center can be found at SSLPAL.org.

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Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime Western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.