Bridget Stevens wants to help everyone.
Her gym, Tribal Boxing Club, offers free boxing classes to youth ages 12-17. Now she’s branching out and developing a program to help even younger kids.
“I always get the children who are damaged,” Stevens said in a recent interview. “Why can’t I get kids before they’re damaged? So I can give them the strength to not have to go down that bad road.”
Stevens will be starting new classes on Mondays and Fridays from 5-6 p.m. for ages 8-12. She is looking for sponsorship so this younger age group can be free as well, but finding sponsors isn’t always easy.
“I’ve been working my butt off 10 times harder to help the youth. And it’s a struggle because I’m from the reservation, and everybody who has connections down here (in HRM), they’ve known people all their lives,” she said.
Stevens, a Mi’kmaw woman from Eskasoni in Cape Breton, started her gym in Dartmouth three years ago. Before that, she was a private trainer for professional boxers while trying to go pro herself.
But a shattered jaw during a spar with a heavyweight put a stop to that dream and started a new one. When she could no longer fight, Stevens started working with kids.
“I always said when I got better I would hop back into the ring immediately … but now it’s just all for the kids. They’re part of my journey now, I can’t let them go,” she said.
Before the government-mandated gym and recreation shutdown was announced on Tuesday, Stevens was running programs for young people at Sipekne’katik First Nation as well as at her own gym on Windmill Road in Dartmouth, seven days a week.
Many of the youth she works with need a safe place to escape to when things get tough.
“A lot of these kids have it rough at home and they need to come here to get a rest. To them, fighting and nose bleeding is nothing compared to what they go through mentally and in life, it’s zero,” she said. “What you would see here is violence, but to them it’s peace.”
They can come to her gym any time, as long as they are tobacco, drug, and alcohol free and are passing school.
Stevens says she has over 25 youth who drop in regularly for no charge. These boxers have made great strides in terms of confidence, positivity, and mental health.
They also see benefits in terms of self-defence. One of her students, John-Michael Forrestall is 12 years old and has been boxing at Tribal for six months.
“If someone tries to punch me in the face, I’m better off now,” he said.
No gear? No problem
Stevens says if a young person comes to Tribal Boxing and can’t afford gear, she will find a way to get it for them.
“No matter what, I’ll go 24 hours a day to get my kids what they need,” she said.
Some of her classes have entry fees, which go into a pot that helps fund supplies for the youth she works with. Boxers at the gym also share their cleaned gear with others.
But making sure everyone has what they need isn’t always easy for Stevens.
“Someone just helped me by donating a box of 10 new gloves. I’ve never had help like that before,” she said. “Nobody knows, everybody sees this place booming but they don’t see it’s all free work.”
For her new classes for the youngest kids, some of her older, more experienced boxers will be volunteering to teach them.
“They’ll do anything to help others because they see me doing it,” she said. “This place is like how I was brought up. Community helping community.”
Stevens brings many other aspects of her culture into her coaching.
“My people were such fantastic warriors, and I’m putting the same ethics in here. All of my kids fight like they’re Mi’kmaq. They even go to sweat lodges before competing,” she said.
Forrestall has seen many changes in his life since having Stevens as a coach.
“She’s probably the best coach in Canada,” he said.
But to Stevens, her role is more than just being a good coach.
“I’m their psychiatrist, I’m their trainer, I’m their mother, I’m their protector. And I’ve got the best kids.”
Stevens was interviewed before the shutdown of gyms and sports in HRM was announced. She had already narrowed her classes down to 10 people and was following all public health procedures. Now Tribal Boxing is closed for the mandatory two weeks.
She said she would continue with her classes in any way possible, and when asked if she is worried for the future of her gym in the pandemic, she said no.
“I’m a survivor. Even if I’m narrowed down to nothing, I’ll survive. The only thing I’m worried about is the health of the kids.”
About the author
Nicola is from New Brunswick, currently living on unceded Mi'kmaw territory in K'jipuktuk (Halifax). She has a political science degree from...