While humbly accepting his award and acknowledging the appreciative applause, Jesse Torres felt a bit sheepish in the spotlight.
He’s never been one to pull punches, but it’s always a bit awkward to him when well-wishers offer congratulations.
“This isn’t about me,” Torres said. “This is about the kids. They are the driving force behind all of this.”
All modesty aside, Torres plays a huge role in an endeavor quite deserving of recognition. It came his way Thursday when Jesse “The Law” Torres was honored as the 2009 recipient of the Pete Perez Community Service Award, given annually by the city of Aurora’s Hispanic Heritage Advisory Board.
A capacity crowd, packed into every crevice of the large banquet room at Long Island Sound, gave him a prolonged standing ovation to convey their genuine and heartfelt respect.
Truth be told, Torres could be presented this award every year, retroactive to 1995. That’s how long he’s been running “Jesse’s Gym.” In conjunction with the Fox Valley Park District, Torres goes the distance for at-risk youth with his consistently successful boxing club that packs a potent 1-2 punch.
As many as 90 kids come through the open doors on a daily basis at the Copley II Recreation Center. Whether they don boxing gloves or not, they are part of the overall training program — for at Jesse’s Gym, the lessons of life are every bit as important as learning to throw a right hook.
The wisdom and training Torres imparts, along with the encouragement and confidence-building, are all free through the park district’s and Torres’ collective efforts. Kids provide the sweat, energy and devotion. Torres provides the direction, guidance and positive attitude that propel these youths toward a better tomorrow.
“I tell them straight out that when you join my boxing club, you get out of it what you put into it,” Torres said. “It’s the same way in life. Anything worth pursuing takes commitment, dedication and doing the right thing.
“Not everybody who comes here will leave as a world-class fighter. They may aspire toward that, but what we’re really here for is to stress the positive and help these kids find a future. For me to give them guidance and provide direction comes naturally.”
Torres, who is also an Aurora police officer (hence “The Law” moniker), has been involved with boxing for 34 years, including a successful professional career as a Golden Gloves lightweight fighter in which he boxed on and off for 21 years to the tune of a 24-6-4 record.
He stepped out of the competitive ring 14 years ago to face a challenge more daunting than any opponent.
“A lot of the kids come here from broken families with a lot of problems,” Torres said. “They come from low-income families that don’t have the same advantages as most in society.
“When I first opened the gym, there were a lot of doubters. People said it would never work in such a troubled area.”
Torres had a simple solution that didn’t require stiff rules or extra security.
“Respect,” he said. “We expect everybody to treat each other with respect and dignity. Whether they come here one day a month or every day of the week, I treat all these kids the same, and I expect that out of them. We’ve had no problems.
“We know the program works because the kids keep coming back every night.”
Not only is Torres conducting community service, but he’s giving back in ways that develop better citizens as well.Pointing kids to desirable detours and arming them with the confidence to travel that route can have a wave effect throughout the neighborhood.
“I’m a prevention person rather than the intervention type,” Torres said. “What’s most rewarding for me is to see a troubled kid reinvent himself and go off into a positive direction.”
In boxing terms, it’s called picking yourself up off the canvas. Torres has been doing it for community youth — more than 700 of them and counting.
That’s the real definition of an undisputed champion.
Jeff Long is the public relations manager for the Fox Valley Park District. Contact him at email@example.com