When Annie Clark first walked into the Casper Boxing Club nine years ago she couldn’t even look in the mirror.
The petite woman was a high school dropout who’d just left an abusive relationship. She didn’t know how to defend herself, physically or emotionally.
“I didn’t believe in myself at all,” Clark recalled.
Clark now runs the boxing club. The 31-year-old walks around the gym with a purposeful stride. She smiles easily as she watches a group of children practice their boxing stances. Vibrant tattoos cover her arms. Her head is topped with a pixie haircut that’s shaved on the sides.
A police officer’s daughter, Clark rebelled against authority as a girl. She ran afoul of the law and was pregnant at age 16.
Boxing, she says, changed her life.
Now, she’s spearheading a program to build strong relationships between police and kids. The Central Wyoming Police Athletic League offers activities, from sports to music, that officers and children can do together. The group hopes that will lead to less juvenile crime.
“It’s a community oriented thing. It gets us out of our cars. It gets us into the public’s eye,” said Casper police officer Mitch Hill. “It’ll be a positive impact on everybody’s behalf.”
After visiting a Police Athletic League facility in Salt Lake City last year for a boxing tournament, Clark approached the Casper Police Department about applying for the first PAL chapter in Wyoming.
Police officers are receiving training from coaches at the boxing club so they can assist during classes. Officers will exercise alongside children, doing jumping jacks, pushups and running drills. Then they’ll glove up to spar in the ring.
That, in turn, can foster connections between fighters.
Boxing club member Jairo Perez, 16, said he hopes PAL will help police understand there is no stereotypical teenager. Respect for one another, he said, will be built in the ring.
“Relationships definitely build after a good sparring session,” Perez said.
Sparring also builds confidence. And by getting in the ring with law enforcement officers, Clark hopes the kids will gain more respect for themselves and for police.
“The boxing program alone built me up to the point where I didn’t ever think I could be this person again,” Clark said.
Many children who come to the boxing club are in tough situations, said head coach Clayton Jensen. Some are in foster care. Others have parents with drug and alcohol addictions. Some have committed crimes themselves.
“They’re dealing with things that are a lot harder than what I’m dealing with, and they’re 8 and 10 and 12,” Jensen said.
Clark knows what that is like. As a teenager, she faced felony charges. Her father, former Natrona County Sheriff Ron Ketchum, didn’t bail her out. He wanted her to deal with the consequences.
She continued to rebel against her father and that landed her in trouble for years. Around the age of 23, she left an abusive relationship and found her first ever job, assembling bombs for an oil field.
“I went through some really, really hard times in my life that could have been avoided,” Clark said.
Now she hopes to guide kids away from the decisions she made by encouraging them to build positive relationships with police officers.
“We may not be able to fix everything but we can listen,” Hill said. “We can listen to their side of things and help them through these situations.”