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Boxing Club Helps Give Kids a Fighting Chance : Program: At the gym, participants practice their punches--and learn about giving back to the community.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Jose Herrera wants a grudge match with super-lightweight boxing champ Frankie Randall. The problem: Jose is only 12 years old.

“I always watch Julio Cesar Chavez--he’s my favorite boxer,” said Jose, as a friend wrapped his hands with fabric tape. “When he lost to Frankie Randall I decided I’d learn to box so I could beat Randall someday. But don’t tell him or he’ll come and kick my butt.”

In the meantime, Jose will stick to learning the basics. On Saturday, he showed up at 10 a.m. at an old, refurbished church in Santa Ana that opened last week as a boxing gym for children.

The after-school boxing program is part of Turning Kids On, or TKO, a nonprofit program for boys and girls. The program will also provide a study room, youth counseling and possibly arts and crafts for neighborhood children, said community activist and mayoral candidate John Raya.

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Raya has worked to open the club for more than a year and a half, when the Santa Ana City Council first committed $25,000 to the project and negotiated a $1-a-year lease with Raya for the building at 1416 Bristol St. in the Mid-City neighborhood.

The work paid off, Raya said Saturday, watching as about a dozen boys and girls practiced. They took jabs at two “speedbags,” tossed medicine balls in a red, white and blue boxing ring and skipped over whizzing jump ropes.

Jose Herrera, who was at the gym with his younger brothers Danny, 10, and Rene, 8, watched spellbound as Raya hit a speedbag with a steady whapata-whapata-whap .

“That’s what I want to do,” Jose said.

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Raya’s 15-year-old daughter, Shannon, also helps out. She is a pitcher on the Santa Ana High School softball team, and trains at the gym, coaching younger children to build up her own athletic endurance.

“I used to box with my dad,” she said. “We had bags in the garage, and he’d get me in there to show me what to do.”

Cubanito Perez, who boxed for the lightweight world title in 1986, also is volunteering as a trainer. Perez, who works as a security guard, will be at the gym Mondays and Tuesdays. He says he wants to rearrange his work schedule to be there five days a week.

“When I went down there, I saw Mr. Raya and how excited he was about the club and everything he wanted to do. It was really kind of contagious,” Perez said. “I decided to go down there and try to give my all.”

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“When I was young coming up, I was real hyper. I got into boxing and it took all my energy,” added Perez, 36, who has lived in Santa Ana for 15 years. “A lot of times kids get into trouble because they don’t have anything to do. This club has the potential to be one of the best around.”

A set of boxing bags is set up in the former altar area of the church. Children now box in a ring where church congregants used to sit. And weightlifting equipment now stands in the back of the hall.

To train at the gym, participants must be enrolled in a Santa Ana school, Raya said, and they are encouraged to demonstrate an eagerness to take part in community affairs.

The club is open during the week from 4 to 8 p.m., and youths can show up as early as 9 a.m. Saturdays.

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The Santa Ana branch of the League of United Latin American Citizens has agreed to be the nonprofit sponsor for the boxing club, and will enlist its own youth volunteers to work at the club, Raya said.

While money remains from the $25,000 committed by the City Council to the project, and everyone who works at the center is a volunteer, Raya said that it will take a steady fund-raising effort to keep the club open.

“I’ll have ongoing utility bills. We’ll be looking for people to say, ‘Here’s $100. Pay your light bill,’ ” Raya said. “Utilities, the phone bill--those are hard expenses we’re going to have to raise money to cover.”

Organizers are also seeking donations of office supplies and a video monitor so youths can watch everything from educational videos to boxing tapes.

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Raya said he was inspired in part by memories of a boxing program at El Salvador Park in Santa Ana when he was growing up.

“It was a wonderful thing,” Raya said. “Athletics provide some real-life lessons. If we can get kids in there, help them with their homework, kind of broaden their expectations and show them they have the skills and the heart to succeed, to compete, then the obstacles life challenges them with won’t seem so insurmountable.”

Youngsters who join must help clean the facility and grounds, and eventually, Raya hopes they can meet their service obligations by volunteering for other community groups, including neighborhood associations.

“I want it to truly evolve into a community center. The boxing is kind of the hook for the kids, but there will be other things,” said Raya, who hopes to eventually hold arts and crafts classes at the club and offer self-defense classes for girls.

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