Detective Greg Conchola won’t forget the dead teenager’s older brother eyeing him as officers investigated the homicide outside the family’s home.
“Aren’t you the cop who did boxing at Turner recreational center?” Conchola recalled the young man asking.
“Yes,” Conchola answered.
Nodding to his dead 14-year-old brother, the older boy told Conchola that they both had attended it briefly. But it was too far from their house near 10th Street and Orville Avenue. They didn’t have anyone to drive them. The bus didn’t go there. They quit.
Conchola knew the alternatives for teenagers’ time were partly responsible for the drive-by shooting that took the younger boy’s life.
That gang-related Kansas City, Kan., murder was about five years ago. Soon after, Conchola began looking to move the boxing program closer to downtown neighborhoods.
The present space, 407 N. Sixth Street, is not far from where the young man died.
And the brother’s words keep the Wyandotte County native showing up every night and most weekends at a gritty boxing club he has fashioned out of a 100-year-old building that began as a crematorium.
By 6 p.m. most nights, the club is running on its own rhythm. A dozen to nearly 30 youths might show up.
Everyone knows the drills. From 9-year-old Maria Guereca, who is hoping for her first fight soon, to 17-year-old Guillermo Tello-Lopez, who has been boxing since he was 7.
The boxers move from station to station, attacking punching bags, jumping rope, throwing sequences of punches. The room hums with discipline. A buzzer constantly cuts in, monitoring the sparring. Water drips from a leak in the ceiling onto the corner of the boxing ring.
Conchola’s motto is displayed in English and Spanish on banners: Respeto a Todos/Respect Everyone.
Two police chiefs ago, Conchola got permission to officially call his program the Kansas City, Kan., Police Athletic League. But that, at least so far, is where the support ends.
More than 400 Police Athletic Leagues serve more than 700 U.S. cities and the Virgin Islands. The one across the state line within the Kansas City Police Department is a stark opposite to the struggles Conchola faces to keep his program afloat.
“Greg is out there swimming upstream all by himself,” said Sgt. Brad Deichler, one of two sergeants and six officers currently assigned to the Kansas City Police Department’s Police Athletic League program.
The distinction between the two programs is an engaged, well-connected board for the nonprofit that oversees the Missouri PAL, plus one more critical element — commitment from the chief of police.
Kansas City, Kan., has an interim police chief, but Unified Government Commissioner Brian McKiernan is interested in seeing how the program can be better supported. He visited recently, watching Conchola work with the boxers, and said he came away impressed with what it offers neighborhood youths.
Although they also open their wallets and occasionally even their own homes for youths in tough situations, the Kansas City, Mo., officers are assigned to the PAL program. They rotate briefly into patrol duties only about every 90 days. Otherwise, their job is to work with PAL children.
The program in Missouri also offers boxing. And football, indoor soccer, baseball, basketball, conditioning programs and gardening for children who aren’t interested in sports.
About 200 children come to the activities that primarily are held at the old Blue Valley Community Center, 1801 White Ave.
The Kansas City, Mo., PAL began in the mid-1990s. It has rebounded from a lull in board engagement, a threat of losing its building to mold and a spreadsheet prediction of financial implosion nearly two years ago.
More than a million dollars has been raised for the programs in grants and in-kind assistance during the past 18 months, said Sgt. Skip Cox, the project supervisor. A highly active new board has been crucial, Cox said, as there are ethical considerations for police soliciting funding.
A long list of sponsors from Curry Real Estate to Mark One Electric appears on the program’s website. One generous anonymous donor made two $10,000 gifts.
Pancake breakfasts and taco dinners. That’s how Conchola, 54, raises money.
He has a griddle for the pancakes, a food truck for the tacos. $5 donation by $5 donation, he has been buying hundreds of boxing gloves, punching bags, a ring, headgear, a full gym’s worth of equipment.
And he dips into his own pocket. The detective estimates he has spent $30,000 of his money, but that’s a wild guess. This isn’t a man who is requesting receipts, checking the possible tax write-off of each purchase.
He ought to be. Or, preferably, a savvy volunteer board of directors should be managing the boxing club’s needs financially. And the Kansas City, Kan., Police Department needs to embrace the program as a nonprofit arm.
An opportunity exists with new leadership coming to the Police Department this year. A new chief will be named. Whoever that is can take this on to show the proactive side of policing and make a powerful commitment to the community.
PAL programs operate on a simple premise. Police would prefer to know a young person through athletics than through crime. Give teenagers an outlet for energy and the need to belong through sports and the likelihood that they’ll seek out less scrupulous ways to spend their hours will decrease dramatically.
Everyone readily admits that Conchola’s boxers are among the best in the area.
They travel, going to tournaments in St. Joseph, Omaha, Springfield, Oklahoma and Texas. Conchola drives.
He doesn’t mind, he says. His own six children are grown, and he’s single.
“These kids know that if they call me in the middle of the night, they know I’ll answer,” Conchola said.
Many of them have already faced a lot.
One family moved from El Paso, Texas, to Kansas City, Kan., after the children were caught near a drug shootout while visiting a grandmother who lived across the border in Mexico.
A father regularly comes with five of his children, saying it’s a good place for the family to be together. A mother diligently shows up every night to pick up her two girls after their workouts.
Conchola’s advice to all his boxers is plentiful but caring. He counsels the girls not to diet themselves out of nutrition. Their weight on a scale doesn’t matter. It’s how healthy their bodies function that matters.
An adherence to mind, body, soul — that goes for all.
Conchola reminds a girl to take her earrings out as he winds wraps onto a smaller girl’s outstretched hand. He ushers a younger boy toward an older one and instructs him to help the little guy get his hands wrapped properly.
Later he is leaning on the ropes of the ring, water bottle in hand, pumping up the young man sparring.
“Move forward on him. Don’t turn. Put your hands up. Work. Work. Work. Move your head, mi hijo (my son).”
Calling from upstairs down through a hole in the old wooden floor, he checks the whereabouts of a younger boxer.
The dimly lit basement is filled with weight equipment, much of it donated when the Kansas City PAL program got new items.
About 10 youths were downstairs that cold night, older ones spotting the younger ones on the equipment.
An El Dorado and a Cutlass, both from the ’70s, are in the basement too, leftovers from the building’s last use as an auto upholstery shop.
Water puddles on the floor. More leaks.
Conchola doesn’t have the money for a new roof, but he’s working on other repairs. The building’s use is donated.
He did the rewiring himself. And built two bathrooms and showers upstairs. They come in handy. Utilities being turned off are common for children in both PAL programs.
Conchola didn’t grow up boxing, although his uncle helped train middleweight professional Tony Chiaverini, a Kansas City boxing legend.
He took the sport up about 10 years ago for the annual fundraiser of Guns ’N’ Hoses, police against firemen in the ring.
Sometimes Conchola spies a new kid hanging around outside. He lures them with the taunt, “Want to hit a cop?”
He suits them up and puts them in the ring. They throw wild punches, Conchola’s better-conditioned frame moving easily away. Conchola knows he’s got a new recruit when the teen’s puffing, out of breath.
Work with me, he tells them. I’ll get you toughened up, disciplined, ready.
Consistently, the detective gives the same reply when asked why he’s so dedicated to the program: “So I don’t have to go to kids’ autopsies.”