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Primo Boxing, After-School Refuge for At-Risk Teens, Refuses to Go Down Without a Fight

Santa Barbara council offers to forgive the $13,000 owed in rent on the city-owned building if founders Joe and Jean Pommier vacate by Oct. 10

Around 4 p.m. every weekday, teens from Santa Barbara’s Lower Eastside trickle into the old fire station on the corner of Haley and Quarantina streets. They come to box, train and hang out in the converted station that has served as home to Primo Boxing for the past 18 years.

Primo founders Joe and Jean Pommier wait inside — Joe to begin boxing exercises with the kids, Jean to help with homework and pal around with the kids who come to watch. Many of the children who walked through the doors in Primo’s early days at 701 E. Haley St. now have children and careers of their own. The Pommiers, however, may not be there much longer.

Primo rents its building from the city and owes thousands of dollars in back rent. The city, itself strapped for cash, made Primo an offer: Move out by Oct. 10 and it won’t collect the $13,000 owed.

Now the Pommiers have less than two weeks to find a new home for the club and the youths who rely on them.

The pair have been looking at vacant spaces all across town. One was the perfect size and reasonably priced, but it had no bathroom. Jean said a warehouse or a garage with an open floor plan would be ideal, and the pair are trying to keep costs low.

“It doesn’t have to be pretty,” she told Noozhawk.

The first year the Pommiers began the boxing club, none of the teens who came to box graduated from high school that year. That prompted Jean to begin giving homework help to youths who needed it. But what made the biggest difference, she said, was just asking the kids about school and how they were doing academically.

“We’ve had kids tell us that no one else was asking them those questions at home,” she said, adding that even just asking the question made the kids want to strive.

These days, the group has a 100 percent graduation rate among the 75 youths who attend regularly, and last year, Primo saw all but one of its students go to college, with the other choosing to go to trade school.

“We’re a proven commodity in this community,” she said. “These kids go on to do really great things.”

Doctors, lawyers and local teachers have all made their way through Primo’s doors to box with Joe Pommier.

Jean pulls up Primo’s Facebook page on her phone and shows a note left by a former student. “Primo boxing was the best thing that ever happened to me,” the boxer wrote. “It helped me succeed in life.”

Joe Pommier of Primo Boxing works with one of about 75 youths who frequent the facility on East Haley Street.
Joe Pommier of Primo Boxing works with one of about 75 youths who frequent the facility on East Haley Street. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Joe has been known to pick up stranded kids in the middle of the night if they call for a ride home.

“It’s just something we do,” he said.

Primo’s financial troubles began when it lost its main fundraiser, Fight Night, which took place in Isla Vista. When the fraternity hosting the event lost its standing, the event was discontinued, along with the $10,000 or so that it brought in as funding for Primo.

“Losing that was really hard on us,” Joe said.

The poor economy has made fundraising difficult for smaller nonprofits such as Primo, and a bout with cancer took its toll on Jean, who functioned as the group’s grant writer, in addition to her daily duties at Primo.

The rent due to the city also complicated the financial picture. Jean said the city raised rent rates but didn’t enforce the hikes, so the pair got a large bill all at once.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we can’t pay this,’” she said.

A letter from the city says the City Council had already forgiven $34,000 in delinquent rent in 2009. When no rent payments were paid last year, $13,000 was owed to the city — an amount the City Council agreed to forgive if Primo moved out.

Jean is back and healthy now, and has put out requests for six grants this year, but the lack of a home for Primo has put a kink in the fundraising.

“I can’t write a grant when I don’t have a building,” she said, adding that the pair don’t feel they can charge for the program “when many of the kids come in without enough to eat.”

Local media coverage has garnered some interest — and donations — for the program.

“Now we’re just looking for that building,” Jean said.

Parks & Recreation Director Nancy Rapp said the decision was difficult for the city to make.

“We believe in the work that Primo does,” she said, adding that she’s personally aware of the sacrifice the Pommiers have made to serve at-risk youths. “To Jean’s credit, she has really tried her best to get grants and get people to support their program. I know that’s really a challenge for her, and it’s a challenge for all nonprofits right now.”

But the Parks & Recreation Department, along with the rest of the city, is also facing challenges. Rapp said the rent money Parks & Recreation charges nonprofits goes directly into the budget that conducts programming for youth and seniors.

“We can’t absorb a revenue loss,” she said, adding that government funding for these types of programs is growing increasingly more difficult, and hopes the community will step up to help. “They need a community angel who wants to support their effort. Joe and Jean are the family members for a lot of these kids.”

Mayor Helene Schneider shared a similar sentiment.

“They do tremendous work,” she said, but added that the city no longer has the finances to help. “The city has been subsidizing to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars for years. ... It just wasn’t sustainable.

“Santa Barbara is a very generous community, and I don’t know if people realize the needs that Primo has right now.”

Back at Primo, as youths begin to file in for workouts and homework sessions, Jean sums it up this way: “If you care about kids, you don’t want a program like Primo to go under.”

To donate to Primo or to help with its facility search, click here or call 805.455.2331.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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