In Business, Events, News, Sports

By Stacey Gualandi

In one corner, the world-renowned comedian-turned-actor Eddie Griffin.

In the other, former football player-turned-professional heavyweight boxer Antonio Zepeda, who played football at UNLV.

On stage and in the ring, they are going the distance to fight for at-risk youths in Las Vegas.

“We both came from broken homes, so we understand what these kids are going through,” Griffin says.

Griffin is a successful standup who has starred in numerous shows on both the big and small screen despite, he says, not knowing his father until he was age 16.

“I had three uncles, and they became my father figure,” Griffin says. “Deep inside, I know every boy is wanting to see where half of their genetic code came from. They wanna see this guy, they wanna meet this guy. So, I met him.”

“How was that?”

“I hit him dead in the mouth,” Griffin admits. “I forgave, but I did not forget. I can’t carry that for the rest of my life. Now I have my own children, and I became the father that I always wanted to have, so you can break that cycle in one generation.”

In 2013, the now father of 12 (eight boys, four girls!) decided to make a difference for other underprivileged children by joining forces with his longtime friend Darin Feinstein, a prolific and successful Las Vegas businessman and financial investor.

They had worked with The Shade Tree – a battered women’s and children’s shelter in Las Vegas – but wanted to expand, so together they formed The Feinstein Griffin Foundation to provide equal-education opportunities to kids who need it most.

“If you can show a child a good time, then they’re gonna want more good times,” says Griffin, the self-described fun-raiser. “Then you have to explain the work ethic that it takes to find this type of joy constantly. I think the first move is just make sure that they have a motherf*cking good ass time.”

“Eddie and I have been best friends for more than 20 years and both have large families,” Feinstein says.

“During that time, as we’ve reflected on the state of the world, we realized it seems that children who have no father figure in their lives have a massive disadvantage. So, we wanted to create something substantial to help make a difference.”

About 12 years ago, they established The Feinstein Griffin Foundation for underprivileged children, and every year, they go to The Shade Tree in December to help brighten spirits during the holidays, catering lunch from El Dorado Cantina, which Feinstein owns, and bringing in musicians and performers and commissioning local artists to paint murals on-site.

“We’ve also taken children to special events with their mothers such as Britney Spears concerts, shows like ‘MJ Live’ and Circus 1903 and dinners,” Feinstein says. “For more than a decade, we have provided dozens of these special experiences to children and their mothers, and it is our goal to continue that work while providing the ability to educate the children on how to succeed in our country.

“We created a free 12-step educational program for children to help them develop logical skills and provide fundamental tools for them to think independently after they turn 18 and into adulthood.”

“Since I was 10 years old, I’ve had the same goal: to start a nonprofit for troubled teens and at-risk youth,” Antonio Zepeda says.

Now 29, Zepeda finally got his wish. The heavyweight boxer is now on board as President of The Feinstein Griffin Foundation.

“I grew up really rough; I was homeless from 4 to 8, and from 8 to 17, I was in and out of group homes, and in and out of jails, so I’ve been through it all,” Zepeda says. “A lot of things that these kids are going through, I’ve experienced firsthand, so I see eye-to-eye with them, and I know what it takes to overcome.”

Zepeda, who never met his father, says he didn’t want to be a statistic, so he made the decision to turn his life around.

“At the group home I was in for the longest amount of time, I saw thousands of kids come and go. None of them went to college, and a lot of them are dead,” Zepeda says.

“I graduated high school with straight A’s … played college football with an athletic scholarship … graduated with a degree in criminal justice. I just made a 180. Now, I want to help kids achieve whatever it is that they set their minds to, and that’s why I really want to get involved with Darin and Eddie.”

Griffin says it’s transformations like Zepeda’s and others that keep him in the fight. One young woman he took under his wing at Shade Tree graduated college and has a daughter earning straight A’s.

“She’s actually a schoolteacher now,” Griffin adds.

They say a difficult part is getting kids to acknowledge that they want to change.

“You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped,” Zepeda says.

“That was me. When I was 9, I had so much anger, so much animosity toward the world, and I had people who were willing to help me, but I didn’t want it.”

Through the help of community partners and nonprofits, the foundation will soon announce plans for monthly events. Their emphasis is on kids ages 8 to 17, when “they’re very moldable,” Zepeda says.

“Let’s clean them up, let’s entertain them, and then let’s send them on the right path,” Griffin says. “Then we got to add a bonus, [like] if they can produce straight A’s.”

“Give some kind of incentive,” Zepeda adds. “I’ve been an athlete my entire life. … But, at the end of the day, I always took education seriously because eventually your body is gonna give out … and as long as you protect your faculties, your brain’s going to take you farther than anything.”

There are no two better role models and mentors than Griffin and Zepeda. While they admit that they can’t help everyone, they believe many facing homelessness, opioid addiction and a life of crime could stand a chance at having a happy life.

“That one woman and her daughter’s story, it makes it all worthwhile because it let me know that we can affect people, and it does work,” Griffin says. “So, going forward, I’m just looking for more success stories like that one.”

Las Vegas residents Zepeda and Griffin continue to entertain crowds – Griffin with his long-running residency now at Planet Hollywood and Zepeda with his upcoming September bout – but they won’t give up helping those in need without a fight.

“I still have a lot to do, and I wanna give back,” Zepeda says. “I don’t like to toot my own horn; I just keep pushing. I would love in a few years to see [more] kids like me, and they’re like, ‘Hey, I made it! I went to college! This is what I’m doing!’ That’s how I look at it.”

“You see why we hired this guy?” Griffin jokes.

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