Christopher Valdez, 40, is the president and CEO of The Youth Corps of America, Inc., (TYCoA) a nonprofit organization that seeks to mentor at-risk kids, often by getting them involved in boxing, kickboxing and the martial arts. The organization got its start when Valdez and Tom Elias started the Old School Gym at 142 W. 30th St.; the operation has since moved to 6011 E. 22nd St., the site of the TYCoA Comprehensive Martial Arts Academy. A former boxer and police officer, Valdez has lived in the Tucson area since 1987. Valdez knows his stuff; he's a sixth-degree black belt in Kajukenbo, and a first-degree black belt in the Shotokan system. TYCoA, which works with a number of local government agencies, schools and nonprofits, is currently looking for donations; for more information, call 514-9547 or e-mail tycoa@dakotacom.net.

How did TYCoA get started?

I'd been working for the city of Tucson as an outdoor educator, and with the Survival Wilderness Adventure Training program. I worked with kids in public housing, and I saw that we needed to do a lot more for those kids. Being on the southside, I saw a lot of gang activity, drugs--I saw the whole piece happening. ... And there was really no way out of it (for the kids). I figured I could do something by just being there. As a former fighter, kids really looked up to me. I started mentoring kids and helping them. I've been doing it for years. The problem was, a lot of the so-called prevention people were afraid to go into these areas; they were afraid of the kids. They were so intimidated by gangs, they'd say, "I am not going to go into the neighborhoods." And that's how the Youth Corps of America really started.

How many kids has the program helped?

That's hard to say. ... The thing is, a lot of the kids we helped way back, they pop in and say hello, "Hey, I am doing good." It's like a family.

How do you find the kids who need your help?

We do programs out (at places like at the Weed and Seed sites). ... One of the prevention people will say, "Hey, you need to talk to this guy. He's not listening to us, but he likes boxing." We'll go to him and say, "Hey, come to the gym, and get involved in the program." Or we'll meet kids through charter schools, as part of the alternative to suspension programs.

How do you raise your money?

A lot of it comes out of our own pockets. That's one reason we're looking to get donations. We do a gun-violence prevention program that's funded through the (state) attorney general's office. Then, with the Weed and Seed program ... for phase one, we teach martial arts in that program for a whole week, and we donate our time. For phase two, I get paid to teach character-building and leadership skills, communication skills, problem-solving skills. ... We also do outdoor-education programs.

You talk about southside kids, but this is pretty far away from there. How do the kids get over here?

Some will take the bus. But we don't only work with kids on the southside. The 29th Street corridor, from Alvernon (Way) to Wilmot (Road)--a lot of the kids come from there, too. Our target isn't only the southside, even though that's where we started. We're mobile. ... Dojo kwoon is the order of our school; it's a set of internal ethics of what we're about. ... Be honest. Respect others. Refrain from violence. Practice diligently. Seek perfection of character.

Some people out there would say that it doesn't make sense to help kids by getting them into boxing, which is violent by nature. How do you respond to those people?

I tell them that they're going to fight in a controlled environment where they can get out that energy in a positive, controlled manner, or they're going to fight on the streets. We teach sportsmanship and how to avoid fights, and not only how to defend yourself, but why to defend yourself. ... They don't have positive role models. We're their positive role models.

What percentage of the kids would you say you get turned around?

I would say around 90 percent. Some come in and just leave, but when they stay with us, they keep coming back.

Tell me a little about your boxing career.

My first fight was when I was 9 years old. I fought about 100 amateur bouts, and won the New Mexico State Golden Gloves. As a pro, I didn't do so well; I lost more than I won. My third fight was against Antonio Diaz, who became the IBA champ, on ESPN. It taught me a lot.

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