PHILADELPHIA — It takes nearly the complete route of two SEPTA buses to get from West Philly’s Overbrook section to Torresdale Avenue in Tacony.

According to schedules, the trip takes no less than one hour and 36 minutes, one way. Cost? About $9 round trip — $2.50 plus an extra $2 to transfer one way.

It’s a ride Overbook native Marjorie Anderson knows all too well. It’s a route she took every Wednesday for nearly two months last summer after her car finally gave out. The trip wasn’t even for herself. It was to escort her daughter, Phoenix, to a one-hour boxing class each week, inside the Jack Costello Boxing Gym situated in what was previously a bank along a busy stretch of Torresdale Avenue.

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For the latter part of three months, Phoenix took part in Down to Box, a program that empowers individuals with Down syndrome to use boxing as a vessel to work on their coordination, mental focus and physical fitness. The program, founded in Wilmington, Del., distributes its curriculum to interested boxing gyms. In Philadelphia, Costello’s is the only gym to take part.

Typically, people with Down syndrome, also referred to as Trisomy 21, have issues with muscle tone, hand-eye coordination and balance. It’s believed the sweet science that is boxing can help with all of that.

For Phoenix, a nonverbal teen with Trisomy 21, hitting the bags and getting in the ring was not only good exercise but also served as developmental therapy.

Anderson could’ve easily used her car as an excuse to forgo the weekly trek. She’ll readily say that the thought was never in question.

A good thing for Phoenix — even if that wasn’t the case in the beginning.

“Honestly, the thought of her boxing was kind of scary,” Anderson said in regards to Phoenix, 14. “But because it was targeted towards people with Down syndrome, that’s why we decided to check it out. When we first came here, I remember looking at Phoenix and I could see she was like, ‘What is going on?’ But (the instructors) take a lot of interest in the people in the program.”

It was barely two weeks into the program when Anderson noticed a difference in Phoenix.

“She’s listening and she’s looking at people,” Anderson explained. “Every time (boxing instructor Dominique Collette) speaks, she’s listening, she’s taking it all in. This has been so awesome for her. So awesome for her focus.”

‘What they do supports what we do’

On a muggy Wednesday night inside Costello’s Gym, five trainers pay close attention to a room of six students, all with Down syndrome ranging in levels of significance. The class is conducted under the watchful eye of Brian Costello, one of the owners of the gym that was founded by his grandfather, John “Jack” Costello.

While this is the first year of having Down to Box as part of the classes the gym offers, Costello’s always had a hand in teaching the sport to anyone interested. The gym, situated in a tight-knit neighborhood, has always served as a beacon to keep as many youths as possible off the streets. Costello’s is almost entirely philanthropically funded, mainly by the good graces of several local trades throughout Philly.

The giveback from Costello’s Gym is an annual Union Fight Night where they train, prepare and promote tradesman vs. tradesman bouts — pro bono.

But that reciprocity, as Costello explains, has allowed it to also serve the community at large with a host of programs targeted to youths — and now those with developmental delays.

“We’ve had a lot of interest over the years of parents coming in and say, ‘I have a son or a daughter who has autism, they’re not good with crowds. Is there something you guys offer?'” Costello said. “We’ve always had a demand for this even before we got involved with Down to Box, we’ve been coming in here for years during our off hours to do stuff with kids individually … we were doing our best, we knew boxing, but we didn’t really have experience working with special-needs people, and that’s why it was so great to link up with Down to Box. What they do, supports what we do.”

‘We all have our struggles’

Vaughn is a big guy. Down syndrome also makes him nonverbal, reacting only with noises and nods, but he’s in the gym squaring up on a heavy bag held by his trainer, Joey “Tank” Dawejko. If Dawejko’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s considered one of the Top 100 heavyweights in the world with a 27-10-4 record with 15 knockouts. On this night, however, he’s just Joey from the neighborhood, giving positive feedback to Vaughn’s attempts, inside the gym that “gave him everything.”

“It makes me feel good doing this,” Dawejko said. “It’s not just this program but this gym has been so many things to so many different people, you know?

“We all have our struggles, but then you come into the gym and you see these guys doing this with a smile on their face, it makes you appreciate life.”

Everyone in the gym has a story. Ask him and Costello will tell you about his run-ins with the law and how boxing saved him. Collette, the only woman trainer in the gym working side-by-side with Phoenix, said boxing as a former professional turned coach, saved her from a rough life and bouts of addiction.

But her soft spot for Phoenix? Collette’s brother is on the autism spectrum and is also nonverbal.

“I’m the trainer but they’ve taught me a lot,” Collette said. “It’s been fulfilling working with Phoenix especially because I’ve been working with her and we’ve developed so much trust. She’ll come in and gets excited when she sees me and grabs my arm when she wants me to show her something. But it’s not even working with these guys, every time I come in here, you know I’m working with a kid that would rather be here than acting up in the streets. I don’t know, I just feel I have a responsibility to them.”

Anderson can sense it. Not just through Collette’s work with her daughter, but in the mission that has kept Costello’s Gym a neighborhood staple in some form for decades. Today, its form takes shape inside that old bank along Torresdale Avenue — steps from a stop for SEPTA bus No. 84.

“People might think boxing for people with Down’s is weird, and it might sound weird, but it works,” Anderson said. “I’ve seen a change in my daughter since she started coming here and I have this place to thank for that. It’s why we keep coming and as long as they have it, we’ll be here.”

© 2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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