“Some people were saying that girls can’t do everything that boys can do,” said Julianna Roman.
She marched down the street to the neighborhood boxing gym and sought to “prove them wrong.”
Julianna (pictured above), who’s in the 5th grade, is one of 15 students at Fair Haven School who are taking part in a new, two-week-long after-school Girls Boxing Club, which is set to culminate with a celebratory public event from 10 a.m. to noon this Saturday.
Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School senior Ariela Martin created the club with the help of the staff at the Boxing in Faith Gym, which opened five years ago on Grand Avenue.
Martin said she got interested in the boxing gym when she covered a story there as an intern for the New Haven Independent. Martin returned to the gym for a photojournalism project, then went back to learn how to box.
“When I started boxing, I felt empowered. I felt strong. I felt I could take on new situations,” Martin said.
She noticed how few girls there were at the gym.
“I wanted other girls to feel what I felt within.”
Martin set about creating a program that would introduce young girls to boxing. She landed a $2,300 grant from the ANNpower Vital Voices Initiative to get the program going. The Girls Boxing Club met overwhelming interest from kids at Fair Haven School, the city’s 800-student K-8 beacon for immigrant and newcomer kids. Seventy-five girls in the 5th and 6th grades expressed interest in joining. Martin chose 15 of them based on essays they wrote; 12 stuck with the program for the two weeks.
The girls met up with Martin Wednesday in the lobby of Fair Haven School. They walked to the gym next door, donning pink Girls Boxing Club t-shirts.
At the Boxing in Faith Gym, they met coach and co-owner Luis Rosa. Rosa was outside the gym training a female heavyweight pro fighter named Angie Brooks. The girls watched as Brooks punched pads on Rosa’s hands.
“I want to be like you,” one of the girls told Brooks.
Luis and his wife, Marilyn Rosa, who runs a real-estate company next door and also helps out at the gym, led the girls through a warmup.
They ran laps around the parking lot.
“Ándale, ándale!” encouraged their coach.
They strapped on boxing gloves ...
... channeled their inner fighters, and headed inside the gym. Coach Rosa set a clock and announced the first drill: straight punches against the bags.
The room exploded in a flurry of punches. After 90 seconds, girls took a breath. Then Rosa led them into the next round.
“Left, left, right—go to work!” he announced.
After several more rounds, they hit the boxing ring upstairs—not to fight, but to do abdominal exercises.
Kaitlin Gonzalez examined her biceps to see if they had grown.
Rosa took the girls outside for more running and footwork exercises. They raced each other across the parking lot and back in pairs.
Julianna just barely edged out Lashiya Robinson (pictured).
Lashiya recalled the first time she hit the Fair Haven gym ten days prior. Coach Rosa made them punch the bags for three rounds, one minute at a time.
“I was about to give up,” she recalled. “Coach told me to brace myself. That’s when I kept going.”
She said she has learned not only how to punch, but “how to make yourself do more.”
“It was super hard at first,” agreed Julianna. “I wanted to quit, but I didn’t.”
After an hour of exercise, the girls said “hasta luego” to their coach.
Rosa, who’s from Puerto Rico, always makes an effort to greet the kids in the style of the countries their families come from, said Kaitlin. He offered her a special Mexican handshake before she left.
Martin led the girls up to the Girls Boxing unofficial clubhouse, a back room of Rosa Realty, for the second hour of the day, which is focused on academics. Martin made up a curriculum focused on leadership and girls’ empowerment. Girls read the book Esperanza Rising, about a girl who moves to the U.S. from Mexico after her father dies. They talked about what it means to be a role model.
On Wednesday, they planned for a final party, in which they will read essays to their families about what the club has meant to them. The girls went around in a circle, saying how many family members would attend.
The question yielded a glimpse of the challenges some of the girls are facing.
“I don’t know, because my dad gets out of jail tomorrow,” said one girl.
Martin said she has raised money to pay for six of the girls to get a year-long membership to the gym, which costs only $100. Girls were asked to rate how badly they want to keep training there.
Kaitlin said she really hopes to stay.
“I want to be stronger and a braver fighter than what I am now,” she said.
Another student, Amaya Velez, said she was scared when she first showed up to the boxing gym. “I was one of those girls who didn’t know how to defend myself.” A poem she worked on Wednesday showed how she has come to believe otherwise.
“I am strong/ I am powerful,” wrote Amaya. “Nobody can tell me different.”
To make a donation to the Girls Boxing Club, click here.
Past stories on students at Fair Haven School:
• VH1 Gets A Left-Handed Thank You
• Idled Dental Van To Rev Up Again
• Toni Harp & “Toni Harp” Take History’s Stage
• Harries Floats Class-Size Switcheroo
• A “Snowball” Aims At Latino College Gap
• New Recess Rules Kick In
• Boys Find A Place On The Stage
• Bilingual Ed Overhaul Under Way
• New Havener Of The Year
• Common Core Hits Fair Haven
• Firefighters Respond To The Turkey Call
• VH1 Helps 15th City School Start Tooting
• Mr. Shen & Ms. Benicio Hit The Books
• Maneva & Co. Take On The ‘Burbs
• Aekrama & Ali Learn The Drill
• Fair Haven Makes Room For Newest Students
• From Burundi, A Heart Beats On
• As Death Nears, She Passes Down The Dance