The Friday evening kickboxing class at Joe Hand Gym does more than get young girls exercising. It builds them up from the inside out.
Last summer, Erin Fennell and Brittani Warner started a kickboxing and self-esteem class for girls 10 to 18-years-old. Their mission was to get girls exercising and to give them a safe environment to share their feelings and problems with their peers.
Fennell thinks that the class has had a tremendous impact on the young girls and sees it as being beneficial to them.
“They probably aren’t able to articulate how they feel it’s helped them,” Fennell said through email. “But the majority of them keep coming back, so I have to believe it’s helping them in some way.”
Daija Graham, 12, uses the class as both a physical and emotional release every week.
“When I was younger, I was a bully,” she said. “Ever since I started coming here, my family saw a change in me.”
She also recognizes that the group is a safe place to share. She doesn’t hesitate to express her feelings with her peers, as well as with Fennell and Warner.
“I made a lot of friends here,” Graham said. “But they’re not just my friends. They’re like my second family. I can tell [Fennell and Warner] things I can’t even tell my parents. They’re like my second parents.”
Fennell wanted the group to be a place where she and Warner could better help these girls when they might not know who to turn to.
“Having the self-esteem portion of the group,” Fennell said, “allows Brittani and I to get to know the girls so we know what issues they are either struggling with or in need of praise for. It seems to have given them a place to safely discuss some issues they haven’t felt safe enough to disclose in other settings.”
Warner has seen a huge change in some of the girls. One in particular had extreme anger issues before joining the class, which resulted to her explosion from multiple schools. Since then, Warner has seen a turn-around.
“The teachers were scared of her,” Warner stated. “She had a lot of anger problems from the issues going on in her life. She comes regularly and we’ve seen her whole outlook on life – her whole attitude – change. Even her mom has said she’s seen a huge change in her.”
Boosting self-esteem and confidence are major goals for the class. All of the participants work to help each other out and give each other advice.
Cheyenne Peña, 13, has seen first hand how helpful the other girls can be and how talking to other people helps create confidence. She’s since realized she can be more than what society potentially has mapped out for her.
“I used to have low self-esteem because I used to think I was fat,” Peña said. “They made me realize I am somebody, that I’m not just going to be any other girl in Philly walking around with a stroller and a baby.”
Myettia Peck, 15, also really enjoys the group work and has nothing but positive things to say about what it does for her and the other girls in class.
“Coming into this group, I never realized how much stress and [how many] problems that a lot of the girls go through on a daily basis,” Peck said. “It was really amazing to see them open up and share their stories. I found something I could relate to.”
Along with getting the girls to open up, the class teaches them how to defend themselves in difficult situations. Many of the girls spoke about how they learned defense techniques from Fennell and Warner.
Both Peck and Gabrielle Franklin, 11, have learned how to protect themselves in Philadelphia. Franklin learned out of necessity from a previous incident and Peck to make herself feel safer in North Philadelphia.
“I had been in a fight before and I didn’t really know how to defend myself,” Franklin said of why her mother made her join the class.
Peck may someday like to take what she has learned and pass it on to girls when she becomes older herself.
“It has crossed my mind,” she said, mentioning she might like to become an instructor. “I think it’ll be something I’d be interested in doing on the side.”
As for the mothers, they couldn’t be happier that this program exists for their daughters. Many feel as though the class has been a life-changing event for the kids.
Maribel Lopez first brought her daughter Katelyn Lopez to the class late last summer and hasn’t regretted it since.
“When I first heard about [the class] I ran to it,” Lopez said.
She also added that she plans on bringing her daughter for as long as she possibly can.
This is a sentiment that many of the girls feel themselves.
When asked how long she wants to be enrolled in the class Peña said, “Forever.”
– Text, images and video by John Iatesta and Samantha Kordelski.