Leo Santa Cruz used to live in his family’s living room along with his three brothers, had little to eat, and had to trudge 10 miles to practice at a boxing gym.
It was a hard life, with triggers that could’ve brought depression.
Now a featherweight world champion who won his third belt in an August main event at Staples Center, Santa Cruz felt obligated to appear Monday at a World Boxing Council Cares event at Sierra Vista High School in Baldwin Park.
“Keeping the Happy in the Holidays,” was a project targeting area low-income teens and families working to navigate a time of year where materialism and wealth can leave the poor beaten down psychologically.
“I wanted to come and show everyone that, ‘I know what you’re going through, I was there, but if you work hard and find the thing you’re special at, you can become something special like a world champion,’ ” Santa Cruz said.
The inspirational event, dreamed up by WBC Chairman Mauricio Sulaiman and his staff members Jill Diamond and Nancy Rodriguez, and attended by U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-El Monte), sought to spread a message of “hope, resiliency and caring.”
Other boxers, including Santa Cruz’s August opponent, Abner Mares, WBC super-featherweight champion Francisco Vargas of Mexico, former super-bantamweight champion Israel Vazquez and former featherweight champion Daniel Ponce De Leon, attended.
Sulaiman said he feared the event could be canceled after the shootings in San Bernardino, but said he was told by Napolitano, “We need to do this now more than ever.”
“It makes you feel good at this time of year to give back,” Santa Cruz said. “I care about these people, because I feel like I’m one of them.”
Santa Cruz (31-0-1) said he’s aiming to return to the ring around February, with International Boxing Federation featherweight champion Lee Selby a possible foe while the winner of February’s Carl Frampton-Scott Quigg match and World Boxing Organization champion Vasyl Lomachenko also targeted in 2016.