By Nancy R. Elliott
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. — Kathryn Womack wraps each of her hands with cloth tape, then pulls on a pair of boxing gloves. The woman sets her feet in a determined stance, raises her fists and focuses her eyes intently at Thomas Tijerina. She starts throwing punches.
“I love it,” says Womack. She’s talking about the hour-long high-energy fitness boxing workout that Tijerina makes available for free to the community.
Womack’s been boxing a couple of times a week since January. When she’s not punching some of the various bags that hang in the room, Womack throws jabs toward Tijerina, who coaches her, wearing focus mitts to provide targets for her punches.
Andry Rakotomalala, 23, works up a sweat as he throws repeated fast short punches at the speed bag. The international Anderson University student from Madagascar has been dropping in to Tijerina’s workouts since last summer.
“I love the workout. The workout is just really hard,” says Rakotomalala. He glances toward Tijerina. “He’s also really nice about it. He pushes, but at the same time he doesn’t kill you.”
Tijerina started out offering the boxing workouts at The Mercy House located in the former Shadeland Elementary School on the city’s west side. Now, the gym is housed at Park Place Community Center, 802 E. Fifth St., Anderson. The program is part of Tijerina’s nonprofit called EPIC Initiatives, an acronym for Empowered People Impacting Communities, which was established at the end of 2009.
Tijerina, 36, grew up in Defiance, Ohio, where he boxed for 10 years as part of a competition club. He snagged Golden Gloves champion titles twice, and competed on a national level. His home base was Defiance Athletic Club, where he learned the ropes free of charge while building precious relationships. It’s that model that inspired him.
“It really does a good job of bringing people together,” says Tijerina. “That’s what it’s all about – connecting people and seeing them accomplish things.”
Bringing the vision to Anderson
Tijerina came to Anderson about five years ago. His wife, Vanessa, works as controller at Anderson University. Tijerina earned his undergraduate degree there in 2012, and is now commencing his second year toward his masters in urban studies and community development through Eastern University in Pennsylvania. As part of his graduate work, Tijerina currently interns in the City of Anderson’s Community Development office.
Both Tijerina and Vanessa devote time to the EPIC initiative. So far, it has operated solely on donations, including the Tijerinas’ own money as well as some start-up dollars that came from his club in Ohio. The gym space is equipped with gloves and mitts, speed bags, double end bags, a wrecking ball bag, heavy bags, ropes, weights and more. Basketball, yoga and women’s workout sessions are also available at EPIC. Both husband and wife coach the people who come to the workouts.
“I have a lot of people from the west side of town,” says Tijerina. At the same time, his programs attract students from Anderson University. “It’s always fun to see the diversity of it.”Over the last two years, Tijerina has had a few hundred people come to the workouts, some as young as 7 years old, and others as old as 56. Seventy-five percent of them have been women.
Tijerina also established an accountability group for men in March. There’s currently about 14 guys who show up to work out, encourage each other and stay on track. “They have all been in trouble with the law,” says Tijerina. This group, however, is seeking to stay out of trouble and away from addictions like cigarettes and alcohol.
All of Tijerina's programs are about reaching out into the community, pulling it together and building it up.
“The relational aspect is really important to me,” says Tijerina. “It’s not a faith-based organization. It’s a community-based organization.”
Building confidence, fitness and relationships
The Monday/Thursday workout hour starts with what Tijerina calls a warmup, but for the experienced ones in the group, Tijerina puts them through their paces. They start out jogging in place, and progress through jumping jacks, high knees, butt kicks, planks and side planks.
“I don’t want to hear no cryin’,” Tijerina laughs as his participants good-naturedly complain.
After the warmup, the gloves go on and then it’s time to spar with the various bags or with Tijerina’s moving mitts. There is no fighting at this boxing venue, though participants do learn proper technique.
“I think it’s empowering. You can kind of feel yourself getting stronger,” says Vanessa. “It’s you against you to improve.”
Tijerina takes satisfaction in the process. “My favorite part as a coach is taking someone who feels awkward or they’re out of shape, and they get confidence, they get in shape."
Carole Freeman, 47, started boxing with EPIC in March after learning a little about it from Vanessa at their workplace.
“I’d never heard of it,” says Freeman. She weighed almost 300 pounds when she first showed up at EPIC. She’s lost 50 pounds since then. “I love it. It’s challenging and it kicks my butt.”
“That’s what started it. I learned I could do stuff,” says Freeman, who had never before worked out in her adult life. “I had no clue what they were going to ask me to do.”
As it turns out, she says, “It’s just really fun and you don’t feel out of place …. It just feels good.” Freeman credits the Tijerinas as instrumental in her success. “They’re just there to encourage me in this journey I didn’t know I could do.”
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If you go What: EPIC fitness workouts Where: Park Place Community Center, 802 E. Fifth St., Anderson When: Drop in Mondays and Thursdays, 6 to 7 p.m., other times as well for yoga, fitness boxing, basketball Cost: Free More info: Check out EPIC Initiatives on Facebook, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.