Lord, grant us strength of purpose that we may faithfully bear our crosses each day.
―Concluding prayer, Seventh Station of the Cross, “Jesus Bears the Cross”
On Sept. 14, His Eminence Donald Cardinal Wuerl visited the Catholic Bishop McNamara High School (BMHS) in Forestville, Md. to participate in a special dedication mass and blessing of the school’s new Andy Mona Student Center. In addition to a newly landscaped outdoor patio and cafeteria lounge, the center features a commissioned series of 14 artworks, each of them a community-focused representation of the Stations of the Cross.
Seated among the honored guests was Buddy Harrison, whose likeness was featured in Station Seven, “Jesus Falls for the Second Time.” Terry Quinn, the artist commissioned for the piece, chose Harrison as his subject. Quinn said that Harrison’s service, his work in the community with youth at his Old School Boxing Gym and among the homeless, ideally suited him to a piece used for contemplation of the crosses we all bear.
Harrison said he was surprised at having been honored together with clergy, a state senator and Prince George’s County Police Chief Henry Stawinski. “I never thought I’d even be in a photograph with a police chief,” Harrison declared later, looking at an image taken that day outside the school.
Buddy Harrison lives in Capitol Hill, where he moved to be nearer to his wife’s workplace, but still keeps a place in Southeast DC, not far from the Hillcrest neighborhood where he was raised. Harrison left school in the eighth grade to run with and eventually lead a street gang. “I got in a lot of trouble,” he said of his childhood, “I’ve been in every reform school you can think of.”
He was in and out of trouble, a self-described “lost kid,” until his arrest and conviction for armed robbery at the age of 19. He was sentenced to 19 years and served nearly 10. After his release, Harrison was determined to turn a new leaf. “I got home, and one day – things were still rough when I got home – I dropped to my knees and I asked God to come into my life. It changed my life. Turned everything around.”
Finding it difficult to get employment with his record, and with bills mounting, he decided to start his own business. Having been a boxer in his youth, he used his knowledge and experience to found Old School Boxing Gym in 1990. Harrison would move it to several Southeast locations before opening at the Rosecroft Raceway (6336 Rosecroft Drive) in nearby Fort Washington almost a decade ago.
Working it Out
Initially Harrison trained only kids and men he thought had talent. He trained them alongside his own son, Dusty Hernandez-Harrison, now an undefeated welterweight boxing champion represented by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. But Harrison’s goals quickly changed. He wanted to give youth a safe space and attention and direction that he didn’t get. “Most of them come from families without a mom and dad, and they don’t have a lot,” Harrison said.
Harrison also wanted to ensure his kids had a better relationship with law enforcement than he had in his youth. He began to offer free training to all Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and Prince George’s County Police officers. “Growing up as a kid, I was taught that all police are bad. So, these kids are thinking the same thing,” he explained. “My goal was to get them close and help the kids.”
A Safe Place to Go
Officer Rick Volcin has spent three years with the MPD Sixth District, and he agrees that being in the gym alongside the kids has made a difference. Volcin originally visited the gym two years ago after seeing signs Harrison had posted in MPD stations. An athlete and former football player, Volcin was looking for a place to go after work to stay fit and burn off energy. He got that and much more.
Volcin said that training at the gym has developed more than just his boxing skill. Being around neighborhood kids has brought “a positive light to a different aspect of me” and helped the kids to see him and other officers not as their uniform or badge but as a person just like them.
“Buddy’s a great, god-fearing man,” Volcin said. “There are some great kids that visit there, and God gives them Old School Boxing and the freedom to be a kid again, no matter what they’re going through.” He added, “It brings everyone together. It’s more than just boxing. And that’s a good thing.”
‘Buddy Has a System’
Volcin has also helped Harrison with his other community service endeavors. Every weekend, Harrison drives to the corner of 14th and K streets NW and, standing in the back of the truck, distributes clothes and other necessary items to neighborhood families. In August, he collects shoes to make sure the kids have a new pair for school. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, he distributes donated meals to those in need.
Harrison is quick to give credit to the network of donors and volunteers that support his endeavors. “If it wasn’t for the people giving me stuff, I couldn’t do it. I give them credit. I don’t have the money to buy all the stuff they give me.”
But it is also his drive and compassion that continues to push Harrison.
“I went down one time – someone saw a video where I only had five purses,” he explained, his voice quiet with emotion. “The ladies were all – they felt so bad they didn’t get one. Within three days I had 400 purses. 400.” His voice was a whisper as he contained his emotion.
For his work on the BMHS installation, Quinn, the artist, accompanied Harrison on one of his trips to 14th and K and has seen the impact of Harrison’s work. “When his truck pulls up, it’s a thing,” said Quinn, noting that a large number of people quickly find their way to Harrison once he is parked. “And they all wait patiently. None of them were reaching into his truck. Buddy has a system, and he makes sure that you get what’s going to work for you, size-wise. They’re patient, but that truck emptied in 15 minutes.”
The outreach to children and to the homeless are based out of Harrison’s gym at Rosecroft Raceway. But Harrison’s relationship with Rosecroft is coming to an end. The gym closed Monday, March 26 and Buddy is looking for a new location.
“The kids are already calling and asking me when we’re going to have a new place,” says Harrison. “I’m gonna’ find a place, it’ll happen.” Harrison says he hopes to relocate in the District or near a Metro stop. Most of the kids come from Southeast DC, and he says it is difficult for them to get to Rosecroft by public transit.
He’s also losing the nearly 3000 square foot storage space for the items he collects to distribute to the homeless. “As I’m walking out of the door after telling everyone this,” Harrison said of the last day at the gym, “this lady pulls up with three bags of stuff and I didn’t want to tell her I have no place to put this.”
Harrison will celebrate his 58th birthday on April 4 and says he is not looking forward to the work involved in moving the gym and his charitable operation to start over. But he is sure it is part of God’s plan. “I’m torn up about this,” he said, “but there could easily be a good reason for it and as a result, things could get a little better.”
‘One of the Biggest Moments of My Life’
Harrison said that the dedication ceremony and the inclusion of his image as part of the Stations of the Cross was a significant honor. “When that happened, it was probably one of the biggest moments of my life. That was pretty cool, to know that something’s there permanently.”
BMHS Assistant Principal Dian Carter said that the fact that Harrison is a real person, recognizable to many of the staff, students and parents, is significant. “We’ve all fallen by the wayside, no matter what religion you come from. And students have to understand that. You fall, you get back up. And then when you are up, you reach back to help somebody else.”
Students at BMHS are expected to perform 20 hours of community service work, and Carter and Assistant Director of Institutional Advancement Sandy Mammano say that they plan to work with Harrison to distribute meals and items in the future. “This is real. This is what’s going on. And to say: Buddy Harrison can do this, all of us should be able to give an hour and be able to help Buddy with his mission, make it all of our mission,” said Mammano.
Buddy Harrison can be reached by email at email@example.com.