Boxing As Social Work
Prelude by Joette Katz
Building on strengths to overcome challenges is the essence of our work. So this story about Johnny Callas, a Department of Children and Families (DCF) manager whose big heart drives his commitment to helping underprivileged Hartford youth learn to succeed through learning to box, is a metaphor for all our work.
The clearest reasons can be mysteries to the people affected by them.
Meet Johnny Callas, a DCF manager at the Department's Careline, where more than 90,000 calls pour in every year sharing concerns about the safety and well-being of children. While he is not particularly large in size, his energy is enormous. He has the swagger of an athlete and the personality of a character in an episode of the Sopranos. Think "Robert De Niro" or "Al Pacino."
When you talk with Johnny Callas, you won't soon forget.
Callas had a start to life that augured an interesting path. Born in Bridgeport in 1964, his mother placed him with the Village for Children and Families and at less than one year old, he was adopted by a Greek-American couple from Hartford.
They lived in the Foster Heights section of the city in the South West End in a middle class neighborhood with "lots of politicians," Callas said. His father was a lawyer.
It was not apparent that Callas would become an accomplished athlete. In fact, he had a club foot as a child and the family doctor told his mother that he would never play sports.
But a maternal uncle, "Uncle Bill," thought something had to be done about Callas' status as a "Momma's boy." At age six and right in the living room, Uncle Bill talked to Callas about legendary fighter Joe Louis and showed him how to hold his hands and "how to stand like a boxer," Callas said. It was like dropping a match into a can of gasoline.
"Any chance I had to spar and put on boxing gloves, I jumped on it," Callas said. "It came natural to me. I didn't think twice about getting hit in the face, and I loved it." He said he would get his friends to box with him in cellars or backyards. His friends were not always excited about the idea, but Callas said he would beg until they relented and even would offer to tie his right hand behind his back.
Callas was forced to rely on reluctant buddies because he had no formal outlet during that time in his life. "I always wanted to box," Callas said, "but my Dad didn't know where to take me." Ironically, a well-regarded boxing gym run by then-local celebrity Mac Buckley in the crime-riddled Charter Oak Terrace housing project was less than a half mile from the Callas house. Callas said he went to grammar school with many of the boys who, unbeknownst to him, boxed at that gym.
It was not until Callas went to school at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) that he would truly engage in his passion for the sport. At his freshman orientation in 1982, Callas heard that CCSU had an excellent boxing program. Callas went to his first boxing practice and was thrown right in to spar with a senior who twice had been to the nationals. "I didn't let him breathe," Callas recalls of that bout. "He was spewing blood everywhere. He didn't like me after that." Callas said the coach, Billy Taylor, put his arms around him and said, "You are going to be travelling with the team."
Callas had considerable success in his collegiate career. He lost a fight for the national collegiate championship as a sophomore, and then, as a junior, won the national title in his weight class. As a senior, he unsuccessfully defended his national title. Clearly, he was a fighter at the top of the collegiate sport and was selected as an All American three times. After college, Callas also fought overseas as part of a U.S.A. team against Olympic-level competition in Korea, Singapore, the Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia.
"My true gift from God was boxing," Callas said. "Some people are artists. Some are musicians. Boxing was my gift."
Two years after Callas graduated college in 1986 and upon the completion of the "Peace Through Sports" tour of the then-Soviet Union in 1988, Coach Taylor asked Callas if he wanted to take over coaching the team at CCSU. Callas would coach the CCSU Blue Devil boxing team for three years.
The same year he began to coach the college team, Callas found a second way to give life to his passion. Callas opened the Charter Oak Boxing Academy (COBA), which continues today as a non-profit living on donations and grants from agencies and organizations including the Greater Hartford Jaycees, the Hartford Foundation, and the City of Hartford. The same young men Callas coached at CCSU served as mentors for his young boxers from Charter Oak Terrace.
With all this happening, Callas also had to find a way to make a living. In 1987, he got married. (More on that to follow below.) He was working as a substitute teacher and even a substitute janitor as he was preparing to box on the U.S.A. team when one of his teammates had an idea: how about taking the civil servant exam? On a lark, Callas went to take the social worker trainee exam and passed. He got an interview in the DCF Hartford office and -- concerned that accepting a job with DCF might prohibit him from running the boxing Academy -- was sure to mention that "I have to do this boxing program." He was hired as a treatment social worker. After nine months, he was shifted to do investigations.
At 5 p.m. however, he would set off to the Academy in the toughest housing project and one of the roughest and poorest neighborhoods in the city of Hartford.
"It was a labor of love," he said. "The big thing is that we are not only going to produce champions in the ring. We are going to produce champions of life."
For Callas, teaching boxing was much more than teaching to box. "Boxing was a vehicle to teach kids to develop a work ethic, to build confidence and provide self-esteem," he said.
By entering the ordeal in the boxing ring, youths emerge with stronger character and greater capacity to deal with adversity, Callas said. "This kid does something that -- next to war -- is probably the most difficult thing in the world," he explained. "You are trained to keep your composure in a total crisis situation.
"This guy opposite you is trying to take your head off, and you have to stay sane and keep your composure," Callas continued. "It is something you can transfer to other domains in life."
Beyond a doubt, the kids in the Academy program -- approximately 30 to 35 kids coming to the 800 square foot gym -- faced plenty of adversity outside the ring. "These were kids growing up in a war zone," Callas said. "With all the challenges -- including being raised by single moms with few resources -- these are the same kids DCF is involved with."
He said many of the kids were on the fringes of the Hartford gangs that were especially common in the city in the 1990s. "A lot of my kids were -- if not in gangs -- approached by gangs or had connections," he remembered. "Kids peripherally involved in boxing were shot. Some killed."
The goals for the Academy were ambitious: keep the youths in school, out of gangs, and off of drugs.
Callas said that when a youth signed on to the Academy program, the youth also agreed to participate in other programming, including a tutoring and mentoring program with Trinity College students. The Academy offered a "Champions of Life" summer camp that included drug and gang prevention programming as well as recreation and adventure-based learning. (Boxing was not part of the summer program.) Callas took kids on trips to college campuses for boxing matches at places like Penn State, Lehigh, Villanova and other colleges and universities.
The Academy also developed a "behavior modification program" that rewarded kids for doing well in school, counseling, group or other activities. "Anything that contributed to positive development, we would give them points for," he said. The points would be traded in for clothing and boxing gear that the kids would wear with pride at boxing exhibits all over the country, Callas said.
While the youths enjoyed considerable success in the ring, Callas said the emotional strength of the kids was the most impressive thing they showed him. "Ultimately, the credit goes to the kids," he said. "With a little support, a little filling in the gaps, it's amazing what these kids can do."
Callas' social work career developed on a growth path similar to that of the Academy. After becoming a supervisor in the DCF Rockville office (which no longer exists), he entered the social work internship program and was one of the last employees to be able to take advantage of an opportunity continue his education full time. He earned his masters degree in social work from UConn while also conducting an internship at the DCF Riverview Psychiatric Hospital for Children (now called "Solnit South") his first year and at the Quirk Middle School in Hartford the second year.
In 1997, he returned to the Hartford office (where he started his DCF career) as a psychiatric social worker in the "regional resource group" that offers expertise and consultation to social workers in complicated cases. In 1998, Callas came to the DCF "Central Office" to work at what was called the Training Academy to develop and teach a curriculum on adult and adolescent substance abuse. In 2003, he worked in the ombudsman's office and then at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School where he developed a substance abuse curriculum for the boys there that used "pro-social hip hop" and "writing wrap songs" as music-therapy learning tools. In 2004, Callas was overseeing all youth programs at the Training School, including music and art therapy and all the recreation staff before returning to the ombudsman's office in 2005. He stayed in that role until 2012, when he was assigned to the DCF Careline as a program manager overseeing background checks, adolescent re-entry, missing child checks, and the DCF voluntary services program.
Looking back on his boxing career -- as a fighter and now as both a coach and a professional boxing referee -- Callas is certain about what is most important and satisfying. "Coaching is my true love -- that's what I want to be remembered for in my boxing career," he said. "Nothing can replace actually boxing in the ring. Being a pro world championship referee is a great perk. But it is coaching that I want to be remembered for because that's where I made the biggest difference for kids and the sport that I love."
In November 2013, Callas received special recognition when he was inducted into the Connecticut Boxing Hall of Fame. The highlight of that recognition ceremony was that he was introduced by Hartford Police Department Deputy Chief Robert E. Ford Jr., who as a youth received services from DCF and graduated from the Boxing Academy program. Deputy Chief Ford was one of many youths touched by both DCF and the Charter Oak Boxing Academy.
Callas said the boxing and the social work are intertwined in his life as well as those of many of the kids, "It is all the same population of kids and families-- just a different intervention," he said. "Some of my kids I referred to DCF and others were already involved. Inner city kids are our most precious and our most challenged,"
He estimated that about 20 percent of the kids in the Academy program at any time had some involvement with DCF. "Working the boxing and working the social work -- they are just two social work vehicles," Callas said.
Callas is proud the Academy took a bold stance. "We had the Black Panthers slogan: 'By Any Means Necessary,'" he said with a broad smile. "There is not anything we won't do for one of our kids."
As if it were not enough to balance his love of boxing with a social work career, Callas also integrated his family life into the mix. His wife, Dionesia ("Sia"), whom he met at the age of 14, has been with Callas from the days he had to beg his friends to box. Sia has supported him throughout his boxing and social work career -- as well as the amateur boxing careers of all three of their children -- Dion, Aiyana and Anevey. Callas said the kids who attended the Academy called her "Mrs. Coach," and she served on the Academy board of directors since its beginning in 1988. "Without question, Sia has been my most selfless, unconditional and wisest supporter," Callas said. "I paid a tearful thanks and tribute to her during my acceptance speech at my induction to the Connecticut Boxing Hall of Fame."
Their children developed their own love for the sport. Dion, now 18, boxed since he was nine and, at 15, ranked fifth in the nation as a Junior Olympic Amateur Boxer. Dion helps coach kids in the Academy program and recently completed his first year at the University of Harfford, where he made the Dean's List. Callas said, "He may decide to box for U of H and its brand new program, and, if he does, he will immediately put them on the national map." Aiyana, 16, also has been boxing since the age of nine and currently is ranked second in the country as she fought for the USA Boxing Female National Junior Olympic title last year. Shortly afterwards, in preparation for a New York City title fight, she broke her hand on the forehead of a boy sparring partner -- but she is poised to return to the ring around Memorial Day. She is a junior at Conard High School in West Hartford, an accomplished artist, and is exploring art schools for college. She also works and has acted in an independent film. The youngest, Anevay, is 15 and a freshmen at Conard. An excellent artist as well, she also boxes. Callas said Anevay "could be the family's biggest boxing secret weapon as she possesses many of her father's boxing characteristics, especially the 'killer instinct.'" As do the other Callas children, she also helps at the Academy gym.
Like his children, the Academy itself is reaching a new stage of development. Recently, the Academy, after more than 25 years of leasing space, acquired a building and is moving back to Hartford. Not surprisingly, Callas said he will find a way to enlist DCF colleagues to volunteer as mentors, tutors and caseworkers to the kids at the Academy. "I will be reaching out," he said.
Callas -- the adopted kid who grew to love boxing and to love teaching boxing to disadvantaged kids -- said he never thought about how his own past may have drawn him to his career as a social worker and his commitment to coaching kids.
"I never planned it, but life works in mysterious ways," he said. "It's like fate in a Greek play, but I never gave it any conscious thought whatsoever."
When asked to ponder, however, the connection between his own adoption and his work, Callas made it clear.
"I am a product of it," he said of the families and communities struggling to provide a nurturing environment for children. "If my parents didn't adopt me, I could have been a kid on my caseload."
That some of the possible motivations for his most important decisions were not always conscious does not detract from the fact that they were the right decisions.
"I made two gut decisions in my life," Callas said. "One was to box and the other was to do social work. They were both life decisions. I just knew. I knew deep inside."