Antoine Cassidy, the founder of No Gun Smoke School Tour, regularly witnessed crime and violence as a boy in 80s Bed-Stuy.
In fact, he said, he used to call the corner of Fulton Street and Franklin Avenue ‘Vietnam,’ where “You get down, or you lay down."
As a young adult, Cassidy sold drugs to make money and got arrested, landing him in prison on Rikers Island. But Cassidy didn't let his story stop there.
Once he was released from prison in 2003, he went on a mission to become the adult he needed when he was younger-- to become a positive role model to the next generation.
In 2004, he began visiting dozens of Brooklyn schools to talk about his story and perform rap songs with an anti-gun message.
In 2007, he founded the No Gun Smoke School Tour, a nonprofit organization that brings after-school activities and an anti-violence message to several local schools, including P.S. 5, Boys & Girls High School and Ember Charter School.
As part of the program, Cassidy offers positive after-school alternatives to drugs and violence like leadership development and fitness, art and music classes. He also goes back to Rikers Island to teach classes to incarcerated people.
“When I was in jail, I would always say, 'What am I going to do when I get home? How am I gonna make the community fall in love with me?'” Cassidy said. “I said, 'I have to do something positive.' And it took me a while, but then I said, ‘You know what? I want to prevent gun violence because I'm respected in the streets.’”
Now, Cassidy is expanding the No Gun Smoke mission into the boxing ring at RS Strength Gym, a gym located at 8 Grand Ave in Clinton Hill. The donation-based program located across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard offers lessons in technique and fitness, and supplies equipment.
“Everybody looked at boxing as violent, but boxing — this is discipline. Boxing is something that gives the kids an opportunity to think,” said Cassidy. “It shows them different ways of how to live. You have to be responsible in boxing. You have to listen.”
The gym is owned by his long-time friends, Daniel and Kristen Lastique, who support Cassidy's mission.
“I’ve been here for 42 years of my life,” said Daniel. “It was important for me to try to put this gem in the community and be able to provide something to kids from this community where they can, you know, have a family environment and just have somebody to look up to.”
Cassidy's new boxing program takes place on Saturdays from 3:00pm-4:30pm and Sundays 2:00pm-2:30pm at the gym. Children ages 6-15 can be signed up at the boxing ring and take classes with trained professionals.
Since its inception, Cassidy and Daniel say they have seen huge improvements in the children they work with.
Many students have been able to build better relationships and get support for their mental health since beginning the boxing program, Cassidy said.
One of Cassidy’s goals was to change his image and be respected for the right reasons, and it's safe to say he's succeeded. Cassidy’s story has been shared on CNN and New York 1, and he participated in a conversation with then-Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams about his initiative.
He has also partnered with NYPD Community Affairs to bring his programming to local churches and community centers.
"For us to have this facility and be able to work out and give the kids peace of mind and show them about fitness and healthiness, showing that they could be a champion in any kind of way — that's what they look for," Cassidy said. "They're looking for something to [help] express themselves."
You can visit the RS Strength Gym in person or online to learn more and sign up.