Students wrap their hands and wrists before gloves are put on.
A youth's hands and wrists are wrapped before putting on gloves at the Advocates Boxing Youth Program, where fire destroyed a building in March. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In March, the Advocates Boxing Youth Program lost one of its buildings to a fire. It’s still standing but the smell of smoke lingers. Blackened exercise equipment and ash litter the floor. The entrance is blocked by yellow caution tape.

Advocates had used the structure that burned down as a weights and exercise room. Jason Mata, who runs the nonprofit program, estimated it would take more than $50,000 to rebuild, a sum that program fees alone would not recoup.

“For many years – and I’m talking about the last 17 years – we never charged anything,” he said. “We [ask for] a $20 monthly donation. It’s not required; some people pay and some people don’t if they can’t afford it. But for $20, pretty much everyone pays that now.”

On Tuesday, the Advocates launched a fundraising drive to rebuild the burned-out gym. The program aims to raise $55,000, and Walmart and Pepsico have each pledged $5,000 to kick-start the effort. Local Walmart stores donated hand wraps, mouthpieces, jump ropes, boxing gloves, shorts, and T-shirts.

County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) said he reached out to Walmart and Pepsico for assistance after he heard about the fire.

“I didn’t know much about the Advocates, but I knew of the Advocates and knew the work of Jason and his family and volunteers … I knew it would be an uphill battle to restore it [the building] to what it needed to be,” Rodriguez said.

Mata also said that after the Advocates lost the building, many individuals in the community stepped up to provide machines and workout equipment.

“The recovery of equipment was pretty quick, Mata said. “I want to thank [those donors] as well.”

Kids now work out on recently donated elliptical machines in that are dragged out to the parking lot. They spar in another building, untouched by the fire, equipped with a boxing ring and several punching bags.

Charlie Mata, Jason’s dad, still coaches the program’s kids. The three-time local Golden Gloves champion started the youth boxing program about 20 years ago to give neighborhood kids something constructive to do with their free time. Boxing gives kids discipline and the tools to make better decisions, he said. But the program also serves as a way to help kids who may have mental health issues or who need guidance.

“A lot of kids have problems at home,” Charlie said. “They come here, and we try to talk to their parents as well. I’m a social worker. I’ve been doing this for a long time.”

Charlie Mata coaches from the ropes alongside the ring at Advocates Youth Gym.
Charlie Mata coaches from the ropes alongside the ring at Advocates Boxing Youth Program. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

While other boxing programs may focus on winning matches, the Advocates focuses on individual development, Charlie added.

“I’m proud of [their accomplishments],” he said. “They come here and feel wanted, and they feel loved.”

Mata said he has been trying to look at the fire as a positive situation, one that could lead to better facilities for the kids.

“We might get a brand new gym out of it, but I don’t think we needed to have gone through a tragedy,” he said. “Our program has been struggling and we haven’t gotten much help. We already were needing some help and this happened.”

Fundraising to rebuild the gym instead of fundraising to support the program is difficult, Mata said. 

“We’re not able to train kids the way we should be,” he said.

Still, kids from all over San Antonio stream into the gym each day after school. Landon Springer, a 13-year-old who has been training at the Advocates for a year, treks from Northeast San Antonio three times a week. It’s a 30-minute drive, but his family is supportive of his boxing, he said.

“My mom helps out. She’s a volunteer here,” he said. “She didn’t want me to do it [at first]. She said, ‘You’re going to get your brains smacked out.’”

Since joining the Advocates, Springer has dropped 20 pounds. He used to get bullied at school about his weight, and boxing helped him lose some, he said. Boxing also taught him self-control and gave him a community.

“We’re all family here,” he said. “If you see someone messing with each other, we stop it real quick.”

Calvin Baez finds himself playing the role of a mentor at the Advocates. The 21-year-old University of Texas at San Antonio student, born and raised on the West Side, said he’s seen a significant impact of the boxing program on the area’s youth. Boxing keeps them from getting into trouble “with the law,” he said.

“For me [at first] it was to stay in shape, but then it was about helping kids stay out of trouble,” he said. “We’ll play basketball after we’re done training, and I’ll ask how they’re doing in school.”

Mata is still waiting to hear from the City of San Antonio about the building’s safety and viability to be remodeled.

“They haven’t told us ‘It’s hazardous so you gotta knock it down,’” he said. “We’re waiting to hear back from them to give us an order.”

Those wishing to help the Advocates can click the “donate” link on the group’s website.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.