Facundo Salinas found an outlet for his ADHD, and has quit smoking. Carlos Enrique Herrera left a potentially dangerous friend group and is pursuing a newfound life dream. Both young men are students at Sammamish High School, and both are members of Ring Sports United’s Eastside Pugs program.
The Eastside Pugs is a nonprofit program run by Ring Sports United (RSU), a local boxing and jiu jitsu gym run by Mark Messer. The program allows local youths to visit daily, working out and training with RSU’s decorated coaching staff. Though there is no charge for the pugs, they aren’t necessarily getting off easy.
“They help clean, set up, tear down,” Messer said. “No one works out here for free, everybody pays something.”
As well as owner of the gym, Messer is a highly respected boxing coach. Having coached his ex-wife through three world titles, Messer is a veteran of the sport and truly believes it has the ability to change people’s lives.
“Our motivation is because we love working with people the way that we do,” Messer said. “Giving them something better, something extremely challenging to focus on, which will, in the long run, help them to be healthier physically and mentally, help them to learn how to set goals. Maybe it’s just the next bout they have coming up, maybe it’s trying to win a Golden Gloves championship, maybe it’s something in their personal lives.”
Facundo, 16, and Carlos, 15, both began visiting the gym around the same time, about five or six months ago. Since then, they have attended nearly every day, finding ways to make it even when their parents were unable to take them.
Bellevue police officer Craig Hanaumi, community station officer and strong advocate of RSU, directs as many students as he can to the gym. Carlos and Facundo, however, went on their own accord.
“Both of them sought out the gym on their own, so I heard about them from the school,” Hanaumi said. “Most kids who go [to RSU] talk about how they’re going to keep coming back and keep at it. I’ve brought about 40 kids to the gym and maybe 1 percent of them actually do.”
Hanaumi’s position allows him to spend a lot of time working and forming relationships with the community. He also works with the Bellevue school resource officer at Sammamish High School to keep in touch with students and to see who might benefit from the Eastside Pugs. When talking to said officer about Carlos and Facundo, Hanaumi says the results speak for themselves.
“The school officer has said there was a noticeable difference,” he said. “Better attendance, better attitude, better health. Facundo has said that boxing helped him stop smoking because it was limiting his fitness.”
“Since they started going they have had zero contacts with [the Bellevue Police Department]. None.”
The students-turned-boxers have noticed the changes in themselves as well. For Facundo, he has found inspiration to pursue a college education.
“I had thought about going to college but didn’t think I would make it,” Facundo said. “I have ADHD, and I don’t like taking medication. But now this is where I can spend my energy and I think I can do it.”
He isn’t interested in boxing as a career, but Facundo plans on continuing his training after high school and remaining an advocate for the sport. He is thinking about a career in business marketing.
Carlos, on the other hand, has his sights set on a professional career.
“I plan on going to college, but not right away,” he said. “I’m going to keep boxing first, coming in here every day, getting better and better. If I hadn’t been in this gym I’d still be with ‘friends’ getting in legal trouble. But I’m here, and I feel if I come in every day, stay dedicated and keep working, I think I can be something really big.”
A pillar of RSU’s philosophy, and that of the Eastside Pugs’, is community. Boxing is often viewed as a solitary sport, but both Messer and Hanaumi stressed its communal nature, and how community is one of the more powerful things RSU provides.
“We’re mostly about building something people can belong to, to make friends that become like family and to keep each other going in a positive direction,” Messer said. “People say the gangs are just another form of a family, a tribe, that gives people a sense of belonging. We try to provide that in a positive way.”