For two decades, Savoy Howe has been teaching women how to fight back.

What is now Toronto’s only boxing gym for women — and a heralded venue for recovery for survivors of domestic abuse — began as a side venture for Howe, who trained for four years at Toronto Newsboys Boxing Club before trying her hand at coaching for supplemental income in 1996.

Shortly after she started advertising, 40 women had signed up for classes. “Thus began the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club,” according to the gym’s website. Initially Howe, who according to OutSports is also boxing’s first out lesbian, shared a building with the Toronto Newsboys club, but eventually she realized her clients needed their own space to feel comfortable and focused.

In October 2015, the club celebrated its ninth year in its own space, which Howe secured with a $9,000 check — even though she only had $200 in her bank account at the time. According to Howe:

I had to. I knew that this space was meant for us. And the realtor would be showing the space to two other people that very afternoon so I had to go big or go home. Needless to say I did not sleep that night and sat up all night thinking “What the hell did I do!!!?” “What was I thinking!!?” “I don’t have that kind of money!!!” Thank goodness it was on a Friday. So after spending the weekend making many many many calls and piecing together $20 here and $50 there, the cheque went through on the Monday. Now, everytime I unlock the gym before class and flick on the lights, I still can’t believe it.

Although the gym offers open classes several days a week, its primary mission is to give female and trans clients “a safe and positive space” for learning the sport of boxing. And every Saturday, it offers free classes to domestic-abuse survivors as part of its Shape Your Life program, which you can read about in detail here.

“The long-suffering, stand-by-your-man, saintly way that we want victims to behave is tossed out the window. Here’s a human way to express very normal, physical anger in a safe way that isn’t hurting anyone.” – Amanda Dale, executive director of Toronto’s Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic for domestic-abuse survivors.

In addition to coaching, the gym seeks to help Shape Your Life program participants and other members of the community in various ways. Howe’s news section contains an varied assortment of bulletins: solicitations for donated laptops, shout-outs to local businesses, home-care job postings, etc.

Read more about the Shape Your Life program here: Leslieville gym empowers women, inside and out | Toronto Star