After spending a year in Walter Reed Army Medical Center for traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, Jose Sanchez returned home to chaos.
Deployed to Afghanistan in 2006, then injured and confined to the hospital, Sanchez lost the nonprofit boxing gym he ran in Binghamton, N.Y., for seven years because of mismanagement by his girlfriend and other partners.
“They abandoned it,” Sanchez said. “They weren’t paying the lease.”
His bad luck story aired on a local TV show in Binghamton, and he received a call from a staffer for New York State Sen. Jose M. Serrano, a Democrat representing parts of the Bronx and East Harlem. The senator’s representatives asked Sanchez to give a presentation at their office and encouraged him to open a boxing gym near his district, Sanchez said.
“I thought maybe here is a second shot, here is a new start,” he said. “If anything is going to work, it’s going to work in New York City.”
Sanchez grew up in Spanish Harlem and looked forward to returning home. “It was something that I really thought that these guys were going to help us with,” he said.
El Barrio Boxing, a nonprofit gym, opened in January. Membership is growing, but the year has not been easy for Sanchez, who has invested at least $50,000. The grants he expected to receive never came and local politicians say they don’t have the funds to help.
“You got a youth program here created by veterans that are trying to rebuild our neighborhoods, what better campaign to fall behind?” Sanchez said. He employs five veterans and hosts a “wounded warrior boxing clinic” where vets meet to train.
Gym dues, $50 for adults and $30 for children, are collected monthly so Sanchez can pay the $1,600 rent. Nearby gyms charge as much as $120 a month, he said. He doesn’t draw a salary and uses his Army disability check to purchase equipment.
“It’s a blessing,” Lynn, a single mother in East Harlem, said of El Barrio Boxing. “There is nothing here about money.” Lynn’s son is 9 and has trained at the gym three times a week since January. She loves that her son receives personal training at low cost and looks forward to working out.
“He’ll come up to me and say, ‘Mommy, I just love the way my body feels,’” she said. Lynn asked that her full name not be used because she said she is a victim of domestic abuse.
When the trainers on the floor are busy with other students, the 9-year-old works on techniques by himself, simulating defensive positions in the ring or hitting heavy bags. “It builds his self-esteem. It makes him be more responsible. It makes him disciplined,” his mother said. “Here the male mentors are great for my son.”
“When I was a kid, we did not have this,” Sanchez said. “I got involved with drugs at an early age. I ran the streets and got arrested … and I learned very quickly it wasn’t me.”
Sanchez served in the Army National Guard for 23 years, six on active duty. He spent the six months after the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks providing security and helping to recover bodies at ground zero. “I’ve had a hairy career with the military,” he said. “This keeps me going. Having the PTSD, I can’t sit still. I have to be doing something and this is it.”
Worried that his landlord will increase his rent once his lease expires in January, Sanchez wants to secure $20,000 to reassure him that he will be able to pay.
“Hopefully, within two years we might get some federal grants,” he said, “Or a corporate sponsor.” He has applied and been turned down for private grants he said. Elected officials have ignored him.
Aside from Serrano, Sanchez contacted State Sen. Bill Perkins and Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito. “They basically told us, ‘We’ll get back to you.’ We never heard from them, as much as we called them and called them,” Sanchez said.
Greg Meyer, chief of staff for Serrano, said that his office hasn’t had money for nonprofits since 2009. Meyer and Serrano’s press assistant, Carol Caceres, asked why Sanchez was invited to give a presentation despite the lack of funds, did not respond. A representative for Perkins also said there are no discretionary funds for nonprofits available at the state level.
“It’s just the same old song and dance,” Sanchez said.
Mark-Viverito recently launched year two of her “participatory budgeting” process in which community members directly vote on funding for special projects. She has already doled out $1.54 million to those that applied last year, including $100,000 for transportation and Meals on Wheels for seniors, and $500,000 for security cameras in city housing complexes.
Sanchez said he applied for a grant at Mark-Viverito’s office but did not receive a response. Joe Taranto, Mark-Viverito’s chief of staff did not respond to requests for comment.
“We haven’t had one politician in here yet,” Sanchez said.
El Barrio Boxing is small, located on the third floor of 23 E. 115St. The sound of trainers shouting instructions at their fighters compete with conga drummers and trash talk.
Leo Morales, 28, started training and volunteering as soon as the gym opened. He designed fliers for the gym in his free time and eventually landed a full-time job.
“I don’t do this for the money. I don’t do this to get attention. I do it because this is the feeling that I love,” Morales said.
By the time he was 9 he had lost both parents. At 18, he lost the grandmother who raised him. He trained all the gym’s youth members until recently and volunteers at a local basketball camp.
“It feels good, makes me feel like I’m doing something positive,” Morales said. He currently trains six fighters but is also hoping to launch his own professional career.
Andy, a local teenager with Down syndrome, is dropped off at El Barrio Boxing by his social worker every week. “To see that kid get in here and train like the big boys and fulfill his dream despite his handicap, that’s what this is all about,” Sanchez said.
“We try to do everything we can,” he said. “You would think these politicians would fall behind us.”