I always tell the boys the reason I’m so smart is because I made five million bad choices,” says Sally Hazelgrove, referring to the kids at Crushers Club, the boxing program she founded in Englewood in 2013. The key, she reminds them, is to learn from their mistakes. A high school dropout from Naperville who tended bar and did odd jobs before “finding my purpose,” as the 53-year-old divorced mother of four puts it, Hazelgrove began volunteering at a court-mandated juvenile center in Cook County in 2000. “It’s always those after-school hours that disturbed me—the epidemic of young men entering the juvenile justice system,” she says.
In 2010, when her own kids were between 6 and 12, she moved her family from Uptown to Englewood. “Some people have judged me on bringing my kids and living in the middle of a war zone,” she says. “But my children are not any more valuable than any other children. Somebody has to be willing to take a stand and lay their life down for these kids.”
Hazelgrove soon began surveying at-risk boys in the area, asking what would get them off the streets. Their answer? Boxing. She took lessons and rounded up 100 young men from the neighborhood, many of whom had been at odds with the law from an early age, to train with her. Then, in 2013, after winning $100,000 from a competition organized by A Better Chicago, a philanthropy operating out of the tech hub 1871, she opened her gym, renting the third floor of Beautiful Zion Missionary Baptist Church on 64th Street. With homework rooms and even a makeshift recording studio, Crushers Club, which is funded by grants, now enrolls 200 kids (who are charged nothing) and has a waiting list.
The results are impressive: Hazelgrove reports only about a 10 percent three-year recidivism rate for Crushers enrollees, compared with the state average of about 85 percent. In June, Cook County took note: The club became an official partner for its Detention Reduction Initiative, taking referrals directly from probation officers. Says Hazelgrove: “My dream is to take every young man out of the gangs and off of probation.”