Constable Cindi Pepper is urging a teenage girl to let go of her inhibitions and level a punch at her teacher.
“Whatever you’re angry with, or upset about, put it in that big ‘R’,” the 32 Division School Resource Officer (SRO) instructs a girl swinging hooks into the focus pads of the outstretched arms of teacher Katy Whitfield.
It’s another Monday afternoon for the Northview Heights Secondary School Girls Boxing Club, an informal collective where Pepper teams up with teachers to lead girls in boxing techniques in the school’s dance studio.
“We get together and box. It sometimes feels good to hit something,” says Pepper, who has worked at Northview Heights for three years. “And, if there is something on their minds, we talk about it.”
Pepper was introduced to boxing a few years ago by her husband, Parker, who was a competitive boxer, as a fun way to stay in shape together.
“I found it to be a great workout but also a great stress reliever,” says Pepper, who immediately thought to share the sport with the students she sees every day as an SRO for Northview Heights and Newtonbrook Secondary schools. SROs work out of schools to prevent crime and steer kids on the right path, but also to intervene if a criminal issue arises.
“I see their anger and their stress and their depression and anxiety and I wanted to do something to reach out to help them – that’s why I’m here.”
She gathered some of her own equipment and got the go-ahead for round one from then-vice principal Lindsay McWaters to start the club in 2014. She’s since got funding to buy more equipment and benefited from donations.
“I want them to know that it doesn’t have to be ‘I can’t’ – that they can, even if it seems like a crazy idea, or something that they never saw themselves doing, that it’s okay to try,” Pepper says. “Everything is possible as long as they want it and go for it.”
In a school of 1,750 students, from 80 countries, there are many varying interests as to what they want to do in their spare time.
“I think every student needs to have an outlet of some kind, creative, physical or otherwise, in order to deal with the stresses of life and being a teenager. This is a physical opportunity for girls to get together and work together and they’re very supportive of each other,” Whitfield said. “It shows how tough they are. It’s exciting to see their self-confidence increase as they connect with their punches.”
Staff advisors Teacher Susan Kowalchuk and Child and Youth Worker Kristy Korakas are there to work on technique and motivate the girls each week.
“Empowering girls is the best way to help them,” says Korakas. “A lot of them are very quiet. You want to show them they have just as much power as anyone else.”
Korakas says Pepper has a lot of credibility among the students because she takes time to listen.
“The kids really trust her, now, and ask for her all the time, when they have an issue they seek her out,” she says. “Kids have told me they feel safe with her and that she listens to how they feel and what they think.”
Sydnie Linardatos and twin sister Alexie, 14, are among the regulars each week rotating among jabs, crosses and upper-cuts and bag work.
“I feel stronger and a lot of girls worry about make-up and all that. Here it’s all girls, so you can sweat and no one cares,” she says. “It teaches you how to make friends and be yourself.”