Keith Carr, 16, doesn’t talk like most of the other boys at Advance Technology Academy in Dearborn. He uses such words as “en garde” and “marche” and “balestra” – all terms he’s learned as a promising fencer. Athletically built with a wide smile, the high school junior says he hopes to fence in college, where he will major in medicine.
It’s hard to believe that he’s the same kid who used to bad mouth his parents and talk back to his teachers. But it’s not so hard to believe for his fencing teacher, Bobby Smith. The 28-year-old founder of En Garde Detroit looks at Keith and sees himself.
“I was headed in the wrong direction," said Smith, "but when I was introduced to fencing at 15, it changed my life.”
In 2008, Smith founded En Garde Detroit, which brings fencing into inner-city schools in Metro Detroit. Smith’s goal is to provide mentorship and a source of stability for students who otherwise would not have it.
Like so many inner-city youth raised in single-parent households and living in communities with few, if any, positive role models, Bobby Smith grew up thinking that life’s options were few. “I thought I would either end up dead or on drugs,” he said. “I remember growing up in the '90s seeing crack vials on the street.”
FAQs on En Garde
How is En Garde funded?
“By going out to schools (who can afford to pay) and providing fencing for them. We also have a national partner that has provided us support this year, Ascension Health,” said Smith. “We go to more affluent schools to raise money so we can teach in inner-city schools for free."
Is En Garde a charity?
“En Garde is a for-profit enterprise," Smith said. But his newest program, Sword Dreams, is a 501c3 nonprofit that will offer three hours of free fencing on Saturday mornings.
Does Smith have help?
En Garde has three full-time staffers. "We have part-time employment in the spring and summer," Smith said. "During the spring and summer, we about 15 people working for us from local colleges."
Do students pay for lessons?
No, fencing lessons are free to inner-city youth.
While in high school, though, Smith met his future mentor, Peter Westbrook -- the first U.S recipient of an Olympic medal in fencing. After acceptance into the program run by the Peter Westbrook Foundation in New York City, Smith trained with Westbrook after school six days a week. Under Westbrook’s mentorship, Smith received a full fencing scholarship to Wayne State University, where he finished his degree in 2010. While at WSU, Smith became a champion in his own right, finishing in the top 8 in the Midwest in his final year at WSU.
“I don’t think that I would have as close to a successful life if someone did not engage me in cultural gateways,” he said. “I think that is what chess and fencing were for me.”
Just as fencing was a way for Smith to get out of the inner city and ascend academically, he knew the sport could do the same for others.
"Kids are not graduating high school, they aren’t attending college they are dropping out early, kids are not motivated to do anything in school,” he said. “They lack activities offered to them. Kids are obese. These are problems I saw right here in Detroit, and I believe God brought me here for a reason.”
En Garde Detroit, Smith said, is the largest training program in the country for inner city youths in the sport of fencing. “I started out with a couple of kids, but slowly and surely, in the last three years, I would say our average of exposing the sport of fencing is a little over 1,000 youth a year."
Smith’s program focuses on fencing and health initiatives by relating it to everyday life. For instance, fencing is not a sport about just strength, he said, it is also about strategy and tactics It is “a battle between one strategist against another. You cannot be so easily shaken when under attack. You learn to analyze problems, to think quickly on your feet. You learn impulse control when people are attacking you in fencing,” and in life.
“I mean when do you ever hear of anyone fencing, let alone doing it in the poorest schools in Detroit?" Smith asked. "People do not think that these kids can do much and they are suiting up and learning a very old sport. It takes a lot of brain power, a lot of cognitive ability and physical ability. Our motto is ‘Train the body/Sharpen the mind.'"
Hence, his students do not learn just fencing, but also skills such as financial literacy. He uses a program played on iPads to teach basic financial concepts not often taught in school, such as how to balance a checkbook, how to pay taxes and how to save and invest.
From tragedy to transformation
Eleven years ago, Keith confronted a life-shattering event. His mother passed away due to complications from asthma. His father, Chris Carr, believes that this incident may have triggered Keith’s behavioral problems. Since participating in En Garde Detroit, however, Keith has used his family and fencing to heal from his loss and to overcome past behavior.
Since Keith started fencing with Smith, Carr said, he has seen a “dramatic change” in his son. Not only did he compete in the 2010 Junior Olympics and came in 100th out of 2,000 competitors, but he now “takes the initiative to work out, on his own; he has also learned respect.”
Carr said his son no longer has outbursts; his behavior in school has improved; his report cards have improved; and he thinks things through before he speaks. Keith is using strategies learned in fencing and applying them to everyday life.
Fencing with En Garde Detroit also has helped William Schneider, 14, through some difficult moments. William, known as Billy, is a small-framed eighth-grader who had a history of being bullied in school. Cathy Schneider thought fencing was a perfect sport for her son because of the strategic thinking that is involved. She said, “It has given him confidence, strengthens him on a physical and mental level -- and he can get all of his stresses about school out when fencing."
Billy seems to feel its effects because he no longer is picked on. Instead, he said, “I can defend myself. I get respect.”
“Our basic philosophy when we go into schools is that the general health of the community is poor because we lack physical activity in children’s lives in the inner city," Smith explained. "So, on top of that, we have no cultural exposure, so there are no more art
programs, very little music programs. Kids have nothing but just the core curriculum, and its boring, and that affects general health. And general health also affects attendance. By offering the sport of fencing, we have the opportunity to engage kids in not only an activity that will increase their health and decrease illness, but will also engage them in a culturally enriching activity."
En Garde Detroit is a growing organization. Smith hopes to expand into schools throughout the state of Michigan. He currently offers private fencing instruction in a small converted space that used to be Izzy’s department store in Southwest Detroit.
And this month, Smith will start Sword Dreams, a Saturday morning fencing program, free of charge for inner-city kids. Sword Dreams will offer fencing, mentoring and cultural activities. It will be located in Corktown, inside the Pony Ride Building at 1401Vermont.
In the meantime, Smith will continue to empower underserved youth with the tip of his sword.
“I believe I can make some type of impact on the health of my community and the well-being of the children and adults here with this sport,” said Smith, who devotes full time to the venture. “And maybe it is a very small thing, but I would rather help one child compete in a sport that he/she never thought of competing in than never having helped anyone at all. I’m not saying I’m changing the world with a tip of a sword, but I’m making an impact.”