Ontario mentor knocks it out in the ring with passion, poise

Eddie Melendrez is executive director of the Treasure Valley Youth Development Academy. The Ontario-based nonprofit uses boxing to help local kids gain confidence and leadership skills. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

ONTARIO – Eddie Melendrez didn’t get into boxing until he was 18. He was always too scared. It wasn’t the punching or the blood, it was just walking through the door. 

“I was shy,” he recalls. 

Then organizers put him in the ring teaching little kids. He figured out that while he was a great boxer, he was an even better mentor.

“That’s when I realized, whatever I do, it’s going to involve giving back,” said Melendrez. 

Now he’s the executive director of the Treasure Valley Youth Development Academy. 

Tucked into a nondescript strip mall in Ontario, one boxing ring sits at the entrance and portraits of some of his boxers, painted by Melendrez, line the walls. 

The nonprofit is a boxing club, but the sport really comes second in Melendrez’s ring. 

His focus is on building up kids. They do community service through the club, and Melendrez brings in speakers from the community college to talk about education, and from Wells Fargo to teach personal finance to his boxers.

He sees a mix of kids at his gym. The most recent group numbers 14. Some come from single-parent homes and others are on probation. Others are runaways and many live in poverty. 

The Malheur County Juvenile Department, where Melendrez previously worked as a work crew coordinator, refers kids to his program.

It’s the kind of work that got him named Man of the Year by the Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce in 2018.

“It’s no fairytale story,” Melendrez said of working with kids going through a hard time. “It’s a lot of work. It takes years, it takes setbacks.” 

Sometimes the kids he mentors fall off track again. But Melendrez is patient. His job as a youth specialist at Community in Action has taught him that the youth he meets have to do things on their time.

He picked up his love of helping from his mom, who used to share food with the neighborhood kids in Bakersfield, California. At first they eyed her with suspicion, but they quickly grew to love her Mexican cooking. 

Melendrez grew up in a farmworker household. By age 9, he was out weeding the fields with his parents in several locations around the country, including Malheur County. While he would grow up in California, he lived in Vale until age 6 and that’s where his first memories of home were made. He came back to Malheur County in 2006. That’s where his gym was born – in a little house in Vale in 2015. 

Since then he’s seen the support roll in. The Juvenile Department is giving the nonprofit $5,000 worth of gym equipment this summer. When his club members return from break in September, they’ll be boxing in a new set up. 

Then there’s Frank Griffith, a member of the Elks Lodge in Ontario who walked in on a recent Thursday with bottles that the club will turn in for cash.  

“What Eddie’s doing here, we really like,” said Griffith. “We like that he’s mentoring kids who have had a hard time. They not only get the discipline, they get love.”

As he leans back on the ropes of the ring, Melendrez talks about some of his kids.

Like Alyssa Robertson, a 13-year-old who barely spoke when she first started coming to the gym. Now she has more matches under her belt than anyone else at the club. 

Ask Melendrez’s daughter Selena if she can box and the 6-year-old will quickly jump to a stance and become a blur of scowls, knitted eyebrows and punches. Boxing is for girls, too, said Melendrez. 

“I want to break that stereotype” that it isn’t, he said. “A lot of people get scared of boxing, but it mellows you out.” 

He wants to get the kids at his club prepared for national competitions. One of his boxers is prepping to go pro next year. 

“Whatever their future is,” said Melendrez, “we want it to be a good future.”

Reporter Yadira Lopez: 541-473-3377 or [email protected].

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