As the school year begins, one organization makes sure no students fall through the cracks

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT)– It’s the start of the school year and children have more than virtual learning and school work on their plates. Typical support from teachers and staff might not be there for students who need it the most.

It started as a passion project, teaching boxing to young people on La Crosse’s northside. But on the insistence of others, Nathanial Coleman Jr. found them a more permanent place to train.

“Took $60, opened an account and called it The Good Fight Community Center,” said Coleman.

It started with a focus on boxing. But over the course of four years, their work has gone beyond the ring.

“We learned as we went,” Coleman said.

They wanted to bring in younger kids to the center. So they focused the programing to the student’s needs and what they were interested in.

“Versus building a bunch of programs that may not work for them,” said Isaiah Thomas, executive director for The Good Fight Community Center.

They wanted to tailor their work to disadvantaged and at-risk students. Thomas said this could be anything that shakes up a kid’s life.

“[For example,] I have parents who just divorced or today I’m going to a new school,” Thomas said.

That’s how D’Angelo Criscione got involved. Before moving from Sun Prairie to La Crosse, his mom found the center.

“My mom knew that I was interested in learning to box,” said Criscione, who joined the program in high school.

He liked the discipline of it.

“Eventually it became something more than that. You know? Like Nate and everything. It just feels…like the goal changed,” Criscione said. “Before I joined The Good Fight, I wasn’t always the most… I didn’t always have the [highest] self-esteem.”

His mindset has changed.

“He learned boxing and came out of his shell,” Coleman said.

“After joining it was l always like knowing that here I’m good at something. Here I have people who respect me,” Criscione said.

He learned to be a fighter physically and mentally.

“Like just be able to trust that I’m capable,” Criscione said.

That’s the goal through all the programming is to help kids navigate the changes and challenges of life. In addition to boxing, they have an education center, job center, art and music center, and programming to reduce recidivism.

COVID-19 has made things difficult. Like so many others, they had to close the doors for a period of time.

“A lot of what we do is rooted in that in-person relationship. Those conversations. Some times it’s just being in that space where you feel supported,” Thomas said.

But slowly, they’ve been able to bring kids back into the space. This summer, kids could come in for the Perfect 10 Program, which helps students who might be falling behind.

“So they’re already at a disadvantage,” Coleman said.

On top of everything else they’re juggling, the focus is no longer their education, which should be the priority. The program is meant to close that gap by working on math and vocabulary in a small setting.

“So they will be able to catch up and do the things they need to do to be successful,” Coleman said.

Despite the obstacles that the coronavirus presented, kids still showed up for the program. One student even had perfect attendance.

“Showing that she respected the space and the people enough to say you gave me a chance to do this so I will show you I take this seriously,” Thomas said.

Sometimes, that’s all they need.

“There were people who reached into my life and believed the best in me when I couldn’t see the best in me,” Coleman said.

People like Mr. Shapiro, one of his former teachers. Coleman dedicated the education center to him.

“He didn’t let me slide under the radar. He made me better. That’s what I try to pass on to these kids,” Coleman said.

They find ways to get kids to their goals and supporting them when they need it.

“That’s why I do what I do. That’s why I’m here every day. That’s why we fight the good fight,” Coleman said.

That support continues on long after the students graduate. Criscione is headed to UW-Milwaukee for his freshman year. He received a bike to help him get to classes and work and a scholarship from The Good Fight to help for school.

Girls and boys ages 10-18 are welcome to enroll and take advantage of The Good Fight’s programming for only $25 a month. Coleman said they can work with families if cost is a barrier.