One day last December, Donté Brown took 13-year-old Parker Therrien through a circuit of exercises—push-ups, planks, crunches, high knees and back lunges—at the gym he runs in Derwood.
Soon Parker, who lives in Pooles-ville, was breaking a sweat, even though he was barely five minutes into his session at Donte’s Boxing Gym. The workout was tough, and he loves it that way.
Last year, Parker, who regularly trains one-on-one with Brown, also participated in Donte’s Boxing Academy. The 10-week academy, which is open to children ages 7 to 17, is part of Donte’s Boxing & Wellness Foundation, a nonprofit that Brown started last year as a way to teach young people life lessons through boxing.
In addition to instructing students on how to throw a left hook or uppercut during the twice-weekly, hourlong academy sessions, Brown provides lessons on personal finance, leadership, nutrition and other life skills. He also brings in speakers to talk about different careers. As part of the $750 program, students are required to read a book and then do a video presentation to hone their speaking and analytical skills.
Since getting into boxing and participating in the academy, Parker says, he feels more confident and has begun paying more attention to what he eats. “I was a quiet kid who would know things but wouldn’t speak up,” he says. “Now I do. I am more comfortable.”
His mom, Stacey, has also noticed the change and says Brown has a way of meeting kids where they are while also challenging them.
“He is able to connect with the kids in a way that motivates them and makes them feel good about themselves,” she says.
Brown, 31, says he wants to help children “become their best self through boxing” and to teach them lessons they don’t normally get in school. Through the sport, academy students learn discipline, patience and leadership while building mental prowess. “I want to be a better bridge to youth for what adulthood is really like,” he says.
Brown wants students of all backgrounds to be able to participate in the academy, which he sees as a way to help youths stay out of trouble. In April he plans to begin offering several partial and full scholarships for low-income students to attend the academy.
Once considered an “at-risk” youth himself, Brown says that others stepping into his life, including a high school guidance counselor, helped set him on the right path. He earned a college scholarship as part of a program that guaranteed paid tuition for students who kept a certain GPA and didn’t get suspended, get pregnant or get anyone else pregnant. “I relate to them because I was them,” Brown says of the youths he helps.
Brown, who grew up and still lives in Northeast Washington, D.C., and learned to box as a way to defend himself, says he would like to raise enough money so the academy is free for all students. He envisions requiring students to earn admission by doing community service. “Earning something feels better than getting it free,” he says.
About 50 students attend the academy each semester, and all must first make it through an admissions process that includes an application, interview and one-day trial. Brown says he’s looking for kids who are serious and have a “growth mindset.”
Jen Ferguson of Rockville says her sons, Eli, 12, and Max, 16, have benefited from Brown’s training. Eli was able to overcome social anxiety hurdles while participating in the academy, she says. Brown “teaches the students the technique and art of boxing, but is also nurturing this whole generation of youth to become better human beings,” Ferguson says.
Others who train at the gym say Brown is a no-nonsense coach who also shows empathy and compassion, and always wants to know what is going on in their lives.
Brown is “not only just an instructor, but he tries to connect with people on a personal level and be an instructor that is also somewhat a friend at the same time,” says Olney resident Nick Slavin, 15, who trains regularly with him.
“That’s the magic,” Bill Conway, 64, says of the trainer’s ability to relate to his clients, especially the younger ones. The Potomac resident has trained with Brown for three years.
Finding a way to help the less fortunate and “at-risk” youths has always been a part of Brown’s life mission. In the past, he has taught after-school boxing fitness classes through Montgomery County Public Schools and has hired ex-juvenile offenders to help them learn how to turn their lives in the right direction.
He currently sits on the board of the nonprofit Main Street Connect Inc., which developed a Rockville apartment complex that offers units for people with disabilities as well as affordable housing options for the broader market. (Jillian Copeland, who owns Bethesda Magazine with her husband, Scott, is Main Street’s founder and executive director. )
Brown wants more people to get involved in boxing and has advocated for government funding for youth boxing programs. “My entire goal for training people has always been to help people become their best selves through boxing,” he says.