North American Boxing Organization lightweight champion is doing her part to raise awareness about autism.
Melissa St. Vil Won’t Stop Fighting For Her Friend Kaylene
Boxing is a difficult profession. It can be even more difficult for female fighters, as the pool of talent isn’t as deep. As a result, the opportunities aren’t as prevalent as they are for male fighters.
For North American Boxing Organization champion Melissa St. Vil, boxing’s challenges pale in comparison to those faced by her friend, Kaylene. At 19 months old, Kaylene was diagnosed with autism. After Kaylene’s mother passed away, her father, Rafael Vazquez, was forced to retire as an active boxer to ensure that his daughter’s needs were met. Vazquez helps train St. Vil, who upon meeting Kaylene, fell in love with the little girl.
St. Vil has since posted several pictures and videos, helping Kaylene both physically through exercise and boxing fitness, and assisting intellectually by helping with words and sounding things out. Their journey has been well-documented on St. Vil’s social media pages, and it has been inspiring to see Kaylene’s growth and personality.
As St. Vil prepares for her April 23 bout, she understands the fight for so many around the world who suffer from autism or knows someone who suffers from it is just as tough. As she continues to make progress with Kaylene, St. Vil is trying to bring awareness to the developmental disorder while kicking butt in the ring.
She expressed how important Kaylene is to her life while discussing her upcoming fight, autism and much more with Zenger News.
Percy Crawford interviewed Melissa St. Vil for Zenger News.
Zenger News: How is everything going?
Melissa St. Vil: Everything is good. I’m feeling blessed. I woke up this morning, so I can’t complain.
Zenger: Your last fight was … a year ago, actually, February of 2020. Has this break been by design or COVID-related?
St. Vil: Yes. My last fight was right before corona (laughing). It has been because of COVID, but right now things are heating up. I fight April 23.
Zenger: How is training going for that fight?
St. Vil: Training is going good. It’s going smooth. I’m a real germophobic person, so I have been adjusting to all the sanitary rules. If you have a sniffle or a cough, I’m looking at you like, “You good?” I don’t want to get to the fight and it be like, “St. Vil got COVID.” No! No! I’m real careful.
Zenger: Is this a stay-busy fight or will you be defending your North American Boxing Organization title?
St. Vil: This is a stay-busy fight, and then afterwards will be a title fight.
Zenger: I think you are doing amazing work with Kaylene. Kaylene is autistic, and you put a lot of effort into her day-to-day activities. What made autism in particular grab your attention?
St. Vil: Kaylene’s father helps me coach. He had retired from boxing because her mother had passed. His name is Rafael Vazquez. When he would go in the ring, he would always represent autism through Autism Awareness. Going in the ring, he would have on an autism outfit with the autism socks. So, when everything happened, I said, “Why do we have to stop the fight for autism just because you’re not fighting in the ring? It doesn’t mean the fight for autism should stop. For the fighters that can train and fight like myself and everybody else, we’ll go in the ring; we’ll wear the patch. We will continue to fight for you.” Because he still had his career going on, but unfortunately the mother passed away (of cancer), so now it became a full-time job to make sure she was good and assisted.
Then, just learning about it and being around Kaylene every day, and one of my other coaches had a kid with autism. Just seeing them and seeing the amazing people that they are, kind of seeing the world in their eyes, and understanding who they are, it kind of related to me. I don’t have autism, but I definitely understand the fact when people misjudge you or don’t really understand you; it hurts your feelings. I’m sure if it hurts my feelings, I’m sure it makes them feel frustrated, too.
Zenger: I watch all of your videos with her, and it’s definitely a process. I’m sure she has her good days and bad days. What has been the most eye-opening part of being around her?
St. Vil: When I first seen her, I didn’t see a kid with autism. I just seen a child who needed a chance. Not only because she has autism — I just think everybody needs a chance. When you give somebody a chance, that just gives them hope, and you start seeing another side of them. So, I was bringing her to the gym with me, to the park. When I met her, she wanted to be stuck on an iPad. There’s nothing wrong with a child being on an iPad, but all day long is not good. So, I would say, “You know what, let’s go for a walk. Let’s go to the gym and hit the bag.” She likes the medicine ball. Just do something different, and that makes her happy. That makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I’m doing something. I’m helping.
Zenger: You are not only helping her physically, but you challenge her intellectually as well. You were doing letters with her the other day and making her say things. That’s awesome, Melissa. She’s really opening up more for you.
St. Vil: It’s very important, because you know already kids with autism aren’t very social. For her to even give me that is huge. It’s huge.
Zenger: It really is, because there was a time when she didn’t even look comfortable on video, and now she’s all in the camera.
St. Vil: Now she looking for the camera (laughing).
Zenger: What has been the most difficult challenge of getting her where you would like for her to be socially?
St. Vil: There is no trying times for me with her because once you have an understanding of how they think, it’s not hard. So, I go at her pace.
Zenger: April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day this year. Is there anything special lined up or anything you would like to see done?
St. Vil: I just hope the WBC makes patches again, so if there are any WBC title fights that day, the fighters will wear the patch. I’m happy that the WBC cared and did that. For parents with kids with autism that live it every day, I just want them to know that I’m here. I know it’s more than just a month or a day for them. This is their life.
My purpose is to get the message out to the people who don’t understand what autism is, because I was one of the people in the beginning who didn’t know what autism was. I just seen the colorful socks. I love colors. Everybody knows that I’m a colorful person. And I just liked those colorful pieces, but when I found out the meaning behind those pieces, I learned something. So, the same way I learned about it, I want people around to hear about it. With autism, there are different spectrums of it. There are people that look regular; you never know. Albert Einstein [reportedly] had it; Bill Gates [reportedly] has it. You would never know.
Zenger: From the outside looking in, we see it as Melissa is helping Kaylene, but I’m sure that little girl is helping you as well.
St. Vil: Oh yeah, she’s definitely helping me. I always tell people that. They are like, “Oh, Melissa, you are helping her!” She’s helping me. Because like I said before, if you really understand it, they go at their own pace. They’re not going to go at our pace. You see like me and you talking, they would have already checked out. I’m going on her pace. I’m learning patience. I’m trying to apply that to my everyday life. I’m working on patience in the ring; keep pumping that jab. Be patient; you’re going to make weight; don’t eat that cookie yet (laughing).
Zenger: You are such a high-energy and positive person. All of your vibes are always positive. How important is that for Kaylene to see?
St. Vil: It’s very important because I have a positive glow on me like “The Last Dragon,” so if that negativity try to come at me, it’s going to bounce right off (laughing). It’s very important for her to see that because kids with autism are just like you and me. Like I said, they go at their own pace, but they do feel; they do hear; they do see. It’s very important for me to keep a smile and positive energy because she doesn’t really speak too much, so she makes it up with the other senses. She can feel energy. Because there are some days where I’m just like, “Oh my God.” I’m just having one of those days, and she won’t even come by me. She feels it. If I’m having an emotional stare or breakdown, she won’t even come by me. She’s used to me being happy, so she doesn’t know what’s going on when I’m having an off day.
Zenger: Does she understand that you’re a fighter, and it’s your profession, or does she just think it’s a form of exercise for you?
St. Vil: Oh no! She understands because her father, Rafael Vazquez, was a fighter. He was signed with Lou DiBella, so she’s always at the fights. She understands boxing, because yesterday I was doing mitt work; she’s going to take my gloves and put her hands up to hit the mitts. And then she went to the bag. She understands. She knows. Because every day, I go hit the bag, I bring her with me. Like you see in the video, she will bounce that ball. Or, after I’m done, she will hit the bag. She understands boxing totally. She even came to one of my fights.
Zenger: Is it all about going at Kaylene’s pace, or are there certain benchmarks you set for her while spending time with her?
St. Vil: She’s doing good because I’m following her lead. She’s a great student; she’s a great listener, and she’s a good, hard worker. So, as long as I’m going at her pace, she will give me whatever I need.
Zenger: That is awesome. Continued success to Kaylene. You continue to be a blessing in her life, and we will be checking in on you ladies. Is there anything else you would like to add?
St. Vil: Thank you! I will be fighting in April and then “American Ninja Warrior.” I will keep you guys updated.
Correction: March 6, 2021, 11:47 AM
“An earlier version of this article misstated St. Vil’s title as light heavyweight champion. She is the lightweight champion. Zenger regrets this error.”
(Edited by Stan Chrapowicki and Carlin Becker)