In Your Corner

A local boxing trainer receives a $25,000 award to help keep youths off the streets.



Tom Yankello, left, and the World Class Boxing Gym in Ambridge were awarded a $25,000 grant through the Pepsi Refresh Project's Stay Off the Streets initiative.

Photo by Anthony Madonna

"Never settle for less than ... ."

Those are the five words bannered across the wall of the World Class Boxing Gym in Ambridge, surrounded by a wallpapering of posters showcasing champions in their finest moments. The banner appears to have been cut off before the sixth word—"... excellence"?  "... perfection"? "...your best"?

Perhaps the cut was simply necessary to make room for the nearby Muhammad Ali poster or Sugar Ray Leonard photo clipping. But based on the dozen kids who are wailing on punching bags and whirling jump ropes in the humid, hazy gym, the phrase seems like it's purposely open-ended. Constrained only by will.

"These kids are dedicated to a lifestyle," trainer Tom Yankello says. And this lifestyle—one based on discipline—is what Yankello has been teaching to his students from more than 15 years through his Stay Off the Streets program. While many locals have long known of this pro trainer by day and youth mentor by night, some not-so-local folks are now taking notice and financing his dream.

In April, Stay Off the Streets was awarded a $25,000 grant through the Pepsi Refresh Project, a nationwide competition that funds ideas that will have a positive impact on communities. Visitors to Pepsi's website vote for their favorite proposals from among more than 1,100 per grant cycle. Despite the slim odds, Yankello and his students rallied support through Facebook and good old-fashioned word of mouth, and their proposal was voted into the Top 10 group of winners.

"I did it from childhood into my teenage years, and it was something that kept me out of trouble, that taught me discipline, that gave me self-esteem, self-identity, direction and work ethic."
-Tom Yankello

Right now, the gym looks like a scene straight out of Rocky, rickety stationary bike circa 1976 included. But the kids who attend the program's free sessions on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays will soon be sporting shiny new boxing gloves, and those competing in tournaments will be provided with uniforms and transportation.

New treadmills, weights and even a brand-new boxing ring are on the way. Yankello also hopes that the addition of more punching bags will bring more kids in the door. He has a steady turnout of about 15 kids but hopes this will expand to 25 or 30 in the near future.

"I started organized boxing when I was 7 years old," Yankello says. "I did it from childhood into my teenage years, and it was something that kept me out of trouble, that taught me discipline, that gave me self-esteem, self-identity, direction and work ethic."

His childhood passion has turned into a career with success stories that can be witnessed any given day at the gym: A high-five to 9-year-old Cody, who is throwing everything he's got into a double-end bag. A shout of "Good job!" across the gym to Jawaya, who comes in to work out during the offseason of girls' basketball. A pat on 10-year-old Marcus' back as he finishes a round on the speed bag.

Yankello is proud of the trophies and first-place finishes his young boxers bring home, but it's his bulletin board of Polaroids and snapshots where he really showcases his pride. Tacked up are photos of him with young men and women he has known for more than a decade-those he's taken to his parents' house for cookouts, those he's watched grow up and those he's seen rise above the jail time of siblings and substance abuse of parents to become hard-working members of society.

"Sure, I want them to become good boxers,"  Yankello says. "But more than anything, I want them to become good people."

And that's definitely not settling for less than.

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