The Escape Ministries’ building is unassuming. The plain bricks covered in artistic graffiti, the red paint chipping from the heavy door, it is a small building that’s easy to overlook. But appearances are deceiving; on top of being a safe haven for troubled youth, Escape Ministries is home to one of the few boxing gyms in Holland: Westside Boxing.
The gym’s door is hidden on the side of the building; the entrance is like a secret gateway. Just through the paint-chipped door, a dim hallway leads to the gym, a spacious room containing loud, pulsing music. Black-framed photos and posters of coaches and boxers cover the cement block walls. The booming music and the scent of sweat and hard work are all-encompassing.
Punching bags, and the Mexican, American, and Puerto Rican flags, hang from the ceiling. Graffiti art of uplifting words like “believe” and “EMPOWER” span the walls. Besides the weight racks and exercise machines, a boxer and coach engage in a shadow boxing match in the large black boxing ring that takes up a majority of the floor space. The small unassuming gym is a refuge for many at-risk teens in the area.
Ruben M. Silvas, a boxer in the mid-1980s and now a dedicated coach, coached out of his backyard in 2011. Silvas and his brother trained boxers but were looking to expand their gym and discover more talent. In 2013, an opportunity presented itself when an Escape Ministries pastor offered a spare room as a gym space, and Westside Boxing was born.
Before opening Westside, Silvas only viewed boxing as a way to churn out star-athletes and to become known for his coaching prowess, “I was looking for champions, I was looking for guys who would get us noticed. I was doing the right things for all the wrong reasons.”
As more at-risk teens frequented the Westside gym, Silvas’ training philosophy and goals evolved and his purpose became clearer to him. “Because of this ministry, I am now doing it to build up young men and especially to get kids at risk off the streets. If we can build a champion through that, it’s great, but if not, it’s no worries.”
Realizing the positive impact the sport had on troubled teens, Silvas became a registered coach in 2013 so he could officially train and dedicate his time to the at-risk teens he cared deeply about. “I knew there was a purpose for me, and when I joined Westside Boxing, it became a lot clearer.”
Marcel Soto, 18, boxes at Westside every day and trains with his step-dad on the weekends. “[Silvas] is a great role model and he helps me with struggles I can’t deal with on my own. He is a very supportive and caring person and I appreciate everything he has done for me and Westside Boxing.”
At Westside, Silvas makes little for his coaching services. Each week, he accepts $50 from Escape Ministries to train athletes for five hours a day, five days a week. He spends that money on gas since he lives in Grand Rapids, a 40-minute commute he takes twice a day. But for Silvas, it’s worth it.
“Westside Boxing Club took me from the bad things I was doing every day outside of the ring, it helped me stop smoking marijuana, and also changed my outlook on life in a positive way,” Soto said. Although many pass by the Westside Boxing gym without a second glance, amazing relationships are formed, changing and saving lives behind its doors.
“Westside Boxing is a release program for when you’re frustrated, aggravated, or facing things you don’t know how to deal with. Me and every kid that’s in there, we all have different relationships, but I tell every kid to come here when they’re going through problems in life and that I will always try to help them work through it,” Silvas said.
A rainy life-altering night in 2014 solidified his love and commitment to the gym and put into perspective just how impactful the gym and sport can be for troubled youth.
“There was this kid I had been working with, I got a phone call that he was going to hurt himself. Nobody could contact him; he wasn’t answering his phone. When I called him, he said ‘who’s this?’ I said ‘It’s me, Ruben. What’re you doing?’ It was raining out. ‘Oh, I’m just out walking.’ I said ‘Where you at? Can I come get you?’ He had told his mother, ‘I’m sorry for what I’m about to do. I’m sorry, and I love you.’”
“When I got him here, he worked out, and I went up front and called his mom. I kept working with him until his mom came and they hugged and then he hugged me as tight as I don’t know what! And I felt I had just helped save this kid’s life, and I knew this is where I am supposed to be.”
Westside Boxing opens its doors to all and has made visible impacts on at-risk youth, those just seeking a hobby, and even serious trainers. Marquise Hernandez has been boxing since the age of 8 and heavily appreciates Westside’s support. “Being that this gym is a nonprofit organization, I love that I can come in and train every day without charge, unlike a lot of other gyms.”
Hernandez requires frequent training sessions, “someone like me, who is serious about fighting, needs every day of the week to train; they give me that opportunity here at Westside.” The opportunities for boxers is endless thanks to Westside’s commitment to bettering and providing a productive outlet for its community.
Despite its location on the south side of Holland, Westside’s refuge and support have reached many students on the other side of the bridge. West Ottawa High School principal, Jason Reineke recognized the program’s importance, “I appreciate the Westside Boxing program and have heard it benefits many of our students.”
Some kids the gym attracts live difficult lives, but Silvas and the Westside Boxing staff have created an environment that is, in his words, “like a beam of sunshine”.
The relationships and atmosphere encourage kids to let off steam and enjoy a sport amongst friends. “The gym used to attract a bunch of knuckleheads,” he recalls with a laugh, “but it’s family oriented. Everyone that’s here knows each other. It’s a great place to be.”
Westside Boxing is free for all athletes, Silvas is at Escape Ministries building for open boxing and training from 4-8 pm, Monday through Friday. Find their website at http://escape-out.org/westside-boxing/ .
Before Renovation (2013)
“This is what we were working with.” said Silvas
The Best in Boxing 2018