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The Dallas Morning News: Here’s a boxing gym where punching bags and STEM learning collide

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

The LaB is a nonprofit boxing gym offering free classes to those from 8 to 18 years old

(By Maria Ramos Pacheco for The Dallas Morning News, published May 16, 2023)

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Kids and teenagers practice boxing in a busy shopping center in East Dallas. “One, two, one-two, punch,” says the instructor while the background is full of laughter and chatter in English and Spanish. Latin music blasts the room.

It’s a typical day at LaBori Boxing Gym, which later becomes a STEM lab, where still sweaty students learn about careers they can pursue in science, technology, engineering and math.

The LaB, as Amanda Alvarez, 33, the founder of the gym likes to call the place, opened last November with two goals: Offer a space where young people can grow in physical strength and self-confidence, and get them exposed to professional opportunities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

The LaB is a nonprofit boxing gym offering free classes to those from 8 to 18 years old. Through once-a-month workshops, kids also learn about STEM, college applications, scholarships and opportunities for their future.

“You only know what you are exposed to,” said Alvarez, born and raised in Puerto Rico. “I want to give them the tools, kind of dress them with the knowledge that they need earlier in their academic career so that they can start thinking about those decisions beforehand.”

The gym also offers low cost workout classes for adults.

Alvarez wanted to create a place where she could combine her two passions: boxing and science. She holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience and currently works as a consultant for the pharmaceutical industry.

Growing up in a culture where boxing was highly celebrated, she started to practice boxing when she was 18. Through her experience while navigating higher education, she learned that Hispanics were less likely to be exposed to science or pursue a career in that field.

Hispanic professional workers make up 17% of workers across all occupations, but just 8% of all STEM workers, according to the latest Pew Research Center analysis of federal data.

When Alvarez moved to Dallas in 2012, she wanted to open a gym, but things didn’t align until the summer of 2022 when she secured a lease in East Dallas.

Working out

Now the LaB, with graffiti and phrases like, “tu puedes,” let’s get to work, on the walls, is like a second home to about 30 children who come twice a week to learn all the ins-and-outs of boxing.

Keeping children, specifically teenagers, engaged in a healthy activity has become more challenging with the many distractions they face, like excessive social media exposure and the use of alcohol and drugs. But the key to a successful program is having a relationship of mutual respect, said head boxing coach Jonathan Hernandez, 32, born and raised in East Dallas.

“When you tell the kids that you also grew up here and went through the same things they are going through in school and their neighborhood, they respect you and see you as an example,” said Hernandez.

For some students, LaBori is their first exposure to boxing.

“I thought that boxing was a sport only for guys before my friend invited me to come to the classes with her,” said Maricruz Mendoza, 13, who has been taking classes for two months.

Mendoza, a J. L. Long Middle School student, likes that at LaBori, she can stay active and take a break from her phone.

“When you are home, it is hard to put away your phone, but here I don’t think it is hard,” said Mendoza.

Hitting the books

On one recent day, students put the gloves and boxing wraps to the side after an hour of bag punching to learn about scholarships and opportunities at Dallas College.

“Do you know what a scholarship is? Are you going to be the first one in your family to go to college?” Jessica Padilla, a pathway specialist for the School of Health Sciences at Dallas College, asked the kids.

At a table, about 15 kids of all ages ate tacos, rice and beans as they listened to Padilla tell them about what types of careers they could pursue through classes at Dallas College, what a scholarship is, and what being a first-generation college student means. She constantly encouraged them to keep asking questions.

Throughout the presentation, the children talked about their favorite subjects at school and what they wanted to be when they grew up.

“The goal is to have more of these sessions as we keep growing and create partnerships with other organizations,” said Alvarez. “We hope to offer a full STEM summer camp where kids can be more hands-on.”

The founder has big plans to keep growing and bringing more students in to get involved in boxing and STEM.

“I am so thankful for this program where my kids can be surrounded by positive people who can be an inspiration and example for them,” said Nancy Soto, mother of two students. “The fact that the program is free means so much for our family because we don’t have to choose which kids get to do an after-school activity.”

LaBori offers classes for parents that cost $10 per class, or there are packages where the classes can cost as low as $6.

“We try to lower other barriers besides costs. We are like a big family,” said Alvarez. “If you’re a mom or a dad, and you have your kid that evening, and you still want to work out, they’re welcome to join.”

While there is no cost for children, if parents want to donate, they can. Usually, parents drop off bags of snacks, water, or juices so the kids can enjoy a refreshment after classes, said Alvarez. Gloves and hand wraps are available for the kids, so parents don’t have to buy equipment for gym training.

For Alex Corral, 17, a sophomore student at Bryan Adams High School, LaBori is a place that helps him stay motivated and focus on his goal of going to college next year.

“I like to come here and learn the boxing techniques and how to defend myself,” said Corral. “It feels good to use my after school time for something that is going to help me in the future.”

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