SAN LEANDRO -- Castro Valley High School student Deonray Stanley stayed light on his feet while throwing punches in rapid succession on a recent Wednesday afternoon.
On the receiving end of his fists wasn't a schoolmate, but volunteer Robert Osorio, 46.
"Left, left, right, left," said Osorio, while catching mitts with Stanley before adding another right jab to the combination. "You're like Oscar De La Hoya right now."
In another corner of the room, a teenager put his fists to use on a speed bag, while another group of kids worked on their footwork with shadowboxing exercises, weaving in and out of a circle of chairs. In another corner, 24-year-old volunteer Victor Ledon, clad in a body protector vest, let kids take their best shot at him.
It is a scene that recurs three days a week just a stone's throw away from the juvenile hall facility in San Leandro.
More than 20 kids from unincorporated Alameda County make the trek up Fairmont Drive to a gymnasium located just below juvenile hall for a two-hour boxing and conditioning session every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Thanks to the nonprofit Alameda County Deputy Sheriff's Activities League and the Alameda County Probation Department, participants get to learn to box free of charge, and families are even invited to participate on Saturdays, officials said.
Started by the activities league early last year, the boxing program aims primarily to serve as a safe haven for at-risk youth 8 years and older who might otherwise find themselves getting into trouble.
For Ledon and Osorio, both raised in the Bay Area, boxing was an outlet for their anger and self-esteem issues and steered them away from trouble. Both are program coaches, but more importantly, mentors, they said.
"A lot of youth want to experiment, so through this program we are able to talk about it," said Ledon, an Oakland native who at the age of 18 was shot in the femur. "I'm constantly giving them the courage to want to refuse a fight. To diffuse it."
"I tell them a little bit about what jail's like ... how the gang lifestyle works and things you are obligated to do against your will," he said.
Osorio, raised in San Francisco, said they can relate to the kids attending, and according to the participants, the coaches are making an impact.
Though active in school sports, Stanley credits the program with helping keep him on the right path.
"It keeps me out of trouble and drugs and a lot of other things other kids are doing," he said.
Pressures to be involved in illegal activity begin at the middle school level, said Jose Ontiveros, who attends Bohannon Middle School. Without the boxing program, "I would be on the streets doing all crazy stuff with gangs," he said.
For East Bay Arts High School student Juan Navarrete, boxing and training three times a week keep him active. He has lost 50 pounds since he began, and his confidence has increased, he said.
The San Lorenzo Unified School District has even begun prescribing the program for students with health and behavioral issues, and Ledon offers additional conditioning classes at Washington Manor and Bohannon middle schools on certain days after school.
Superintendent Dennis Byas said the program benefits students by giving them "an opportunity to express themselves physically, emotionally and mentally, and it helps them to develop confidence within their own abilities. They begin to respect themselves and others around them, and what we get in return is a better student."
The program is also receiving high praise from parents.
Jose Martinez said his 12-year-old son, Alfredo, has made new friendships since he began in January, while Maria Guido, whose two sons and niece participate, said the program is needed in the area, which lacks youth activities.
Thanks to a grant received this month, the youth will get to spar in a ring for the first time. Now, all they need is more equipment and a permanent space, officials said.
"People think boxing is about violence. It's not. It's a discipline like karate or Kung Fu when it's taught correctly," Osorio said. "If he's doing well in boxing, he's not going to want to fight on the streets. He's not going to want to get hurt. They'll want to save it all for the ring."
Ashly McGlone covers San Leandro, San Lorenzo and the Washington Township Health Care District. Contact her at 510-293-2463. Follow her at Twitter.com/AshlyReports.