Boxing their Way to Better Opportunities

On the banks of the Cooum, nestled amidst the tarpaulin, trash and dense settlements is a small compound wall enclosing the three hundred square foot government rec center. The sound of low grunts, shuffles and a distant counting emerge from behind the wall. A faded blue gate swings open to reveal young boys and girls (as young as seven years old) practicing boxing moves amongst themselves in a rectangular space that demarcate the boxing ring. On the right are makeshift boxing bags made of stacked tires, painted red and blue, suspended from a metal pole. In the background is the building structure whose stained walls are embellished with painted portraits of the Olympian Muhammad Ali and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar—surrounded by motivational quotes in Tamil and English. Amidst the artwork, are the words ‘GS Boxing Academy’, painted in bold white against a deep blue metal door. Behind the door is the silhouette of the amicable coach U. Govindaraj, shouting stern words of motivation to a handful of children from the neighbourhood—throwing punches into black bags of sand. Coach Govindaraj’s boxing academy in the slum was the inspiration behind the inception of KS Kharthickeyen and JL Abinaya’s Whakapapa Foundation.

Govindaraj grew up in Mint Street where he tried his hand at plenty of games before realising that boxing—a popular sport in North Madras where his father used to play—came naturally to him. His passion for the game eventually lead him to become a national-level player. “I could have gotten into the police academy or been appointed in the railways but I missed the opportunity because I wasn’t very serious in my youth,” says the coach regretfully, “So I took up a railway loading job as it gave me enough time to give underprivileged children the chance that I missed.” The coach was no different from these boys in his youth, he used to wander around and skip classes too. He knew well that the lack of money made it easier to slip into the wrong habits and the wrong crowd.

The club started in 2018 and currently trains about thirty-five young students under the age of twenty-one. “If we had trained all of the employed individuals who approached us, we would easily have a hundred people in our boxing club,” jokes the coach. However, he emphasises that his classes are only for young students so that he could shape them and give them opportunities (that they would have otherwise not had access to) through the sport.

All of the children who train under the coach are determined to win a gold medal on a national or even an international platform. Recently, four of the coach’s students had participated in the Nationals and two were selected for the Khelo India Youth Games. One of his students who won a bronze medal in the Nationals has been selected to train with the Indian camp. “Besides the career that boxing would give them, these children now have access to higher education and job opportunities in the government sector through sports quota,” explains Kharthickeyen elucidating the difference that the coach was making in the young underprivileged community of Chintadripet.

Whakapapa Foundation was founded by the software engineer duo to support Coach Govindaraj in his noble cause. “Nobody realised the level of impact and sacrifice that the coach was making through the boxing academy despite not being financially stable himself,” explains Kharthickeyen, “He taught the local kids for a very nominal fee and in most cases his lessons were free.” Therefore, the first initiative for the foundation was to raise funds to support the coach and to clean the government rec center—which was an absolute wreck with broken liquor bottles and piles of garbage that reeked of urine.

When it comes to winning, the students of the academy are more than well equipped. GS boxing academy has taken one of its students to the Indian Boxing Camp and has gone for state tournaments where all sixteen participants would return with a gold medal, however, the two main struggles for the academy were the maintenance of the space and funding the students’ equipment and travel. “Most of these students have to deliberate every time they get an opportunity to contest in a tournament outside Chennai as the funding required merely for transport is beyond their affordability—let alone the accommodation, appropriate shoes and equipment,” explains Kharthickeyen.

So how did ex-Zoho employee, Kharthickeyen and local boxing coach Govindaraj cross paths? It was around the inception of GS Boxing Academy that the fresh graduate was looking to engage in a sport to make him feel more active to overcome the sedentary lifestyle that comes with working at an IT company. “As a fresh graduate I could not afford a gym membership or the go-to sports classes in the city, so I was intrigued when I found a poster about a summer program that claimed to offer free boxing lessons!” gushes Kharthickeyen with excitement. The poster lead him to the coach who at that time was based in Egmore. “I was the only one who was working and came from an English medium background, but I felt no different from anyone else,” he adds, “In the ring, we were all equal.” The intensity of the summer session motivated him to pursue it for the following months. The value he derived was three-hour boxing lessons twice a day for a nominal price of five hundred rupees. Boxing was no longer merely a workout for the young software engineer, he had become a part of the community. He would spend time after class with the coach and students while one of the mothers would bring homemade snacks for everyone. The boxing academy thrived because of the community spirit it garnered.

Kharthickeyen wanted to give back to the community and the coach who had helped him immensely through the sport. As a result, he created an Instagram page for the boxing club and used his network to help create social media content that would market the coach’s classes and celebrate the student’s achievements.

The Covid pandemic was a challenging period for the academy. The club was moved from the Egmore ground to the smaller Chintadripet rec center. By the end of 2019, the community was split and the coach was no longer able to support his family due to the lack of loading jobs. Around the same time, Kharthickeyen quit his full-time job at Zoho and was working on a couple of passion projects which lead him to be a part of various networking groups. He used these groups to raise funds to feed two hundred families affected by the pandemic. That is when it struck him. He could do the same to save the boxing club!

Once the lockdown rules were eased, Kharthickeyen partnered with fellow IIITDM alumni, Abinaya, to raise funds to clean the space, buy a mat and set up the boxing ring. The reunion of the boxing academy was inaugurated with an inter-club tournament witnessed by a celebrity guest list featuring director Pa. Ranjith, Lok Sabha member Thol. Thirumavalavan and gaana singer Madras Miran.

The Khelo games were around the corner and two of the students had been selected from the Junior Nationals. While looking to raise funds for the students’ travel, an exciting opportunity knocked on their door. “Some of our friends working in the CSR department and Organisations like the UUU Foundation were ready to help, however, we were not licensed to accept the funds,” explains Abinaya. Just then they stumbled upon a section 8 company that was available for transfer. The duo jumped at the opportunity and connected with the former founder of the company. “He had to leave the Whakapapa Foundation to pursue education abroad, so he wanted to pass it on for free to someone who had a good cause,” explains Kharthickeyen.

The organisation, under Kharthickeyen and Abinaya’s leadership, is now focused on creating better infrastructure for the academy and supporting the coach with a salary—so that he could focus on the academy full-time without having to worry about financially supporting his family. While the founders are actively raising funds for the cause, they also are devising a business model for the coach to enable a more reliable source of income to develop the academy. “It doesn’t end here,” says Abinaya, “We believe that there are many other talented and selfless people involved in the local sports community. Our next steps would be to identify them and provide help to the entire ecosystem.”

The Whakapapa Foundation derives its name from the Māori word that means genealogy (the origin of everything). Though the British were the ones who brought boxing to India, the labour class community made it their own. The sport eventually became an identity for the community. Staying true to its name, the Foundation aims to support, local sports like boxing that have the potential to break the chains of poverty and pave the way to freedom for generations to come.

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