Sally Hazelgrove grew up in the safe, affluent Chicago suburb of Naperville, but that didn’t stop her from moving her family to one of the city’s worst neighborhoods.
After hearing story after story about gun violence in the crime-riddled community of Englewood on Chicago’s South Side, Hazelgrove decided she wanted to help make a difference in the lives of the children there. She first began volunteering and participating in Department of Children and Family Services programs but was determined to figure out what could get young men off the streets.
“I surveyed the boys on the corners,” said Hazelgrove. “I had my little pad and paper, and asked them what would get them off the corner. Something they wanted to do that they don’t have access to that would get them off the block for a few hours so they’re safe.”
The answer came in the form of boxing, and Hazelgrove hatched a plan to create a boxing club. Though she had no experience, Hazelgrove began boxing training before inviting students from a local elementary school to join her in 2009. Such was the beginnings for the Crushers Club, a boxing club to help rehabilitate Englewood and West Englewood’s youth and give them a safe and strong alternative to gangs.
In 2012, Hazelgrove won a $100,000 grant as well as a year of management support from A Better Chicago, which enabled her to expand the club and hire and train some of the boys as mentors for other students. Now, based in the Zion M.B. Church, the Crushers Club employs 21 boys between the ages of 14 and 24. The boys are not only providing support to other students, but also gaining valuable work experience.
“A lot of the boys that come here haven’t had a job before or even know someone who has modeled that for them,” said Hazelgrove. “We want their mistakes to come out here. Being late, conduct, clothing, engagement; we weed out the bad habits. After a year to three years here, they’ll go out and get another job, and not make the same mistakes there.”
But Hazelgrove hasn’t limited her support to boxing. Joseph “Jo-Jo” Cook was a young boy when Hazelgrove met him, warning her to go inside just before a shooting was about to happen. Recognizing his creative spirit, she pledged to open a studio for him if he would give up a life on the street. Keeping her promise, Hazelgrove built The Voice of Englewood Studio.
“A lot of people have lost hope, and we’re trying to bring people in and give them another option for what they can do in their life,” said Cook. “We got some guys who don’t even care about losing their life. But it feels safe here.”
Creating that sense of safety amid the fraught community is what drives Hazelgrove to keep fighting for the youth through the Crushers Club.
“I have to find a light that burns brighter than the street,” she said. “I have to find something just as exciting.”