Charlee Elyea was 3 when she started studying Goju Ryu, an Okinawan style of karate.

Fourteen years later, the 17-year-old black belt is slated to start teaching martial arts classes of her own.

“I gained a lot of confidence, and life skills as well,” Elyea said of her training.

Elyea will be one of two karate instructors Wapato City Administrator Juan Orozco hopes to hire for a new boxing gym, which could be up and running by June 30, Orozco said.

The proposed gym has created a buzz. With few details yet available, members of the community who felt the gym would be a positive development noted the need for more after-school activities for youths, as well as a sport that would give youths a physical outlet for anger and frustration while instilling important values such as self-control and discipline.

Those against the gym expressed concerns about liability issues and that teaching boxing would encourage more fighting and violence in the community, not less.

Others questioned whether the gym would ever actually open, citing delays to the city’s pool opening and also noting that the building proposed for the gym is in bad shape.

Building needs work

A building formerly used for storage near the city’s community center will become the home of the city’s boxing gym.

It has concrete floors, gray brick walls and low rafters. It’s empty, except for some weightlifting equipment from the city’s police department and odds and ends from community events, including a wooden sign from the city’s Harvest Festival and a photo stand-in with cutouts for children’s faces.

Orozco acknowledged the gym needs a lot of work. He said that $20,000 in the city’s budget has been set aside for renovating the building. He’s also looking for sponsorships and donations, including equipment — a boxing ring, speed bags, heavy bags, and protective gear — and construction work.

“Members of the community have expressed interest and are stepping up,” he said. “We hope to have the gym open by the end of June.”

Orozco said there will be both structured classes, divided by age group and weight class, and time for practice in an open mat format. Elyea already is on board to teach female kickboxing classes. Orozco also plans for a karate class to start around that time.

Classes run by sponsors will not have fees. Otherwise there will be a fee to use the gym. Prices are still being determined, but youths who complete homework will be able to earn free time at the gym. Two hours of certified study time will equal one free hour in the gym, Orozco said.

The city will require all participants to sign waivers to cover liability issues.

“Boxing is not about fighting,” Orozco said. “It’s about self-discipline. Boxing gives children exercise, structure. We are trying to give kids an outlet.”

Orozco said his own interest in martial arts started as a boy, when he and his cousins studied judo. He said training increased his sense of self-worth.

“What it did for me at the time was it gave me a sense of belonging, and it also gave me somewhere to go at night,” he said. “I felt like I had joined a family.”

Community reaction

Members of the Wapato community shared their thoughts about the boxing gym on Facebook in response to a Yakima Herald-Republic posting on the social media platform. Reactions were mixed.

Tony Villa wrote that city administration should have invested the money for the gym in activities run through Parks and Recreation or sports like baseball, soccer or basketball.

“If Wapato has a big gang problem, why train kids to learn how to fight?” Villa wrote. “That’s going to bring more violence.”

Elizabeth Bueno Villa also voiced concerns that boxing was not a safe sport for youths.

“Boxers throughout history have faced serious health issues and disability,” she wrote. “There are many co-ed sports that are available to our community for our children of all ages.”

Veronica Alcazar noted the city had held boxing activities before without any issues. Diana Salinas voiced hope that teaching youths to defend themselves could reduce gang violence.

Cynthia Berber, who lives in Yakima but grew up in Wapato, wrote that learning self-defense techniques in boxing also could help youths victimized in school.

“Gangs are not just the issue. There is also tons of bullying that happens,” Berber wrote. “Boxing could mean a lot of things for different kids in the community. It inspires some to become athletes in that sport. It also brings up their confidence, builds character, and motivation to do something other than gangs.”

Other community members voiced distrust that the project would be completed, or completed ethically, under the leadership of Orozco, who has been a subject in five lawsuits and 10 civil tort claims since becoming city administrator Sept. 4.

Early lessons

Elyea built her martial arts foundation at Goju-Ryu Karate in Selah. She said that unstructured fighting was not tolerated at her dojo.

“In our style, if you started a fight, you got kicked out,” she said. “We were taught to only use it for self-defense.”

Elyea said those rules will be in effect while she teaches. She’s not requiring that participants purchase gis, or uniforms, which can be expensive. Mostly, she’s eager to pass on her skills and knowledge to the young women who will attend her classes.

She said training gave her a way to stay healthy and a place where she also was accepted for who she was.

“I did gymnastics, cheer, and dance, all those girly things, and this is definitely different,” Elyea said. “You don’t get dressed up. Everyone shows up in the same white gi. You’re not expected to be or look a certain way.”

Training also taught her to value something other than looks: her strength and herself.

“When I was young, I had a lot of self-confidence issues, but as I studied, I saw myself in a different light,” she said. “I learned that I could pick up 50 pounds if I needed to, and more importantly, I could defend myself.”

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter:

@LexTalamo.