photos: Eastside Boxing coaches Meego Yassin (left) and Yacine Sylla. Iman Baobeid photo

Feeling the burn

The Frontline Fight Club is using boxing to battle drug crisis trauma.

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Walking down Keefer Street in the heart of Chinatown, your average passer-by isn’t likely to pay much notice to the plain grey door simply marked “238.”

Yet for some frontline workers, behind this unremarkable door lies the opportunity to literally fight off the stress borne from working in the midst of the worst drug overdose crisis Canada has ever seen.

In B.C. alone, illicit drug overdose deaths have soared from 211 in 2010 to more than 1,450 last year. Currently, drug overdose fatalities in the province are occurring at a rate of nearly four per day, most of them in Vancouver.

A 2017 report by Central City Foundation says staff and volunteers with frontline community organizations—who are often on the ground before police, firefighters and paramedics arrive—are facing unprecedented levels of trauma, stress and burnout as they deal with the ongoing crisis, administering Naloxone and working with clients who are grieving the overwhelming loss of life in their communities.

So it should come as no surprise that when you walk through the grey door at 238 Keefer St., you find the Eastside Boxing Club, where every Wednesday and Friday morning Vancouver’s frontline support workers are duking it out as part of a therapeutic remedy called the Frontline Fight Club (FFC).

Olivia Fauland, a frontline worker at Insite, the country’s first legal supervised injection site, has been using the FFC to battle work-related burnout for the last two years.

“I truly don’t know what I would have done without boxing,” says Fauland. “The coaches will tell you that I have so much pent-up stuff and all of them have said I’ve become a different person since starting here.” 

After a summer plagued by short staffing at Insite and deadly overdoses with seemingly no end in sight, Fauland says the physical workouts she gets at FFC have helped her to stay sane.

“I’ve come in and cried multiple times. I’d come in and people here are like, ‘Are you okay?’ And it’s like, ‘No, not really,’ but I’m here and I know I’m supported by these people and I can come here and cry my frustrations out and punch things.”

Fauland, now a regular at Eastside Boxing Club, has even gone so far as to compete in the Aprons for Gloves boxing charity competition, a fundraiser for the club put on by Vancouver’s bar and restaurant industry. Despite being a relative newcomer to the boxing world, Fauland even came home with a win from Aprons for Gloves’ July 2018 competition.

Ring the bell

Fauland (below), like several of the FFC participants, was first introduced to boxing at Eastside Boxing Club by FFC founder and former Insite worker, Anna Farrant. Farrant first discovered boxing could be a mental health tool while working at the supervised injection site, which is run by the Portland Hotel Society (PHS) Community Services Society.

“I was there working nights and a girlfriend of mine was boxing at the Astoria and she invited me to come,” Farrant recalls. “At the time, I didn’t have the knowledge to understand what I was doing, but I knew [the boxing] was allowing me to show up better before work.”

Recognizing the need for an outlet among PHS frontline workers, Farrant pitched the idea of creating a free boxing class for the non-profit organization’s employees. Farrant jump-started the initiative by volunteering to lead the class and eventually secured funding to hold one free boxing class a week.

While working on No Pain No Gain, a workshop with grief doula Rachel Ricketts, Farrant honed her understanding of the relationship between boxing and grief work, and pushed to expand the program. At that point, Lana Fox of the provincial overdose Mobile Response Team also joined the project. By December 2017, they were able to fund two free classes a week at Eastside Boxing Club that would be open to all frontline workers, not just PHS employees. FFC was born.

Though she no longer works directly with the FFC program, Farrant says she is happy to have played a role in bringing boxing—a pastime she says has been vital to her own mental health management over the years— to other stressed-out frontline workers.

“I feel that’s a thing that comes up for people working in an area that’s really challenging, especially where things are under-funded and a lot of problems don’t seem to get ‘solved,’ so there’s a lot of frustration. Resentment can build,” says Farrant. “I feel the self-care element needs to be so important for the sustainability of really important jobs that only certain people choose to do and we really need to take care of those people because it’s a tough job.”

When it comes to frontline support work in the Downtown Eastside (DTES), “tough job” may seem like a bit of an understatement.

While working at Insite, Farrant—along with most frontline workers—deals hands- on with community members who have experienced significant trauma, addiction, psychosis and other mental health barriers. Farrant explains that frontline workers, as the face of aid in the DTES, often act as receptacles for a lot of that energy, and over time, these experiences can lead to a high prevalence of issues such as depression among frontline staff.

“That stress and the anxiety stay in our bodies and it doesn’t just disappear as much as we’d like to think so,” Farrant explains. “You see people struggling, or you relate to situations and to things that are horrific, and you have to walk away and digest that somehow. And over time, my experiences sort of compounded and then showed up... as depression for myself, but it can also show up as not sleeping properly, not eating properly, or bitterness.”

Sarah Whidden has worked with PHS in several roles over the past three years, most recently as the PHS Needle Exchange manager. Whidden, who has been boxing at Eastside Boxing Club for several years, says exercise has always served as an outlet for her to channel some of her distress.

For Whidden, work-related frustrations stem largely from the stigmatization and societal oppression facing the community members she works with.

“Within the workplace there can be very challenging days, but no matter how challenging any one person is, that's never a bad day,” Whidden says. “What makes me upset is when you have people who in the world see human beings as less than or not worthy, or as morally defunct because of the choices that they've had to make or the predicament that they've found themselves in, where survival was the only option and it didn't involve the luxury of doing the right thing. Whatever that is.”

Fighting for reform

Whidden’s challenges working in the DTES are echoed by many of the FFC’s regulars. As an example, Fauland points out how, despite the hard work of frontline workers and community members, without significant policy change and increased funding, the number of overdose-related deaths is likely to trudge onward.

“There’s always the need for more housing and funding. There just aren’t enough resources. And legalization would be ideal...[offering] prescription pain meds and opiates instead,” Fauland says. “It’s just crazy to think that every time you do your drug it could kill you.”

Whidden also argues for substantial policy reform and specifically would like to see individuals affected by homelessness, poverty and drug addiction serving at higher levels of decision making.

“If we don’t include them in the conversation, the services we provide for them are never going to be very adept at serving them,” says Whidden.

“There's a lot of time when the services that we provide our larger community can be more for the caregiver than for the participant. So eliciting their buy-in and their collaboration and then paying them more... their lived experience  needs to be valued as not a series of mistakes, but as a series of valuable experiences that we can learn from.”

Punching it out

Despite the high prevalence of workplace trauma, many Vancouver frontline workers are finding some relief through boxing. But what is it about the activity specifically that carries such appeal as a form of mental health care?

“I never really got into yoga, for example, so for me boxing is the same thing, but it’s packaged differently,” Farrant says. “You wouldn’t know it until you do it, [but] boxing is very intellectual. You’re so present, you’re hyper-focused. What you’ll find is you actually are able to calm your brain and have it be really focused for an hour. It’s just a way to destress and de-stimulate yourself and then the physical act of punching something and letting some of that energy through and out with your breathing—all that can really help you to clear and to shift things.”

Not only does physical exercise stimulate the body’s “happy” chemicals— endorphins—reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, but an increasing amount of scientific research shows intense physical activity can even counteract the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, such as startle responses, flashbacks, mood swings and disturbed sleep.

“Boxing seems like its something that’s violent, but its not violent at all,” says Whidden of the skilles needed for the sport. “It requires a lot of focus and a lot of specific physical articulation. I’m focusing and I’m exerting myself to my maximum capacity.  I find that really compelling right now.”

Coaches with heart

Although several Eastside Boxing Club coaches have had a hand at leading the FFC, these days, it’s likely to be Meego Yassin or Yacine Sylla taking the frontline workers through challenging warm-ups, techniques and shadow boxing. Yassin, a four-time world champion martial artist, was first introduced to both boxing and non-profit work by his wife Jaime Ward, a professional boxer and fellow Eastside Boxing Club coach.

“[Jaime] has been at Eastside since the beginning and I just wanted to do more to get involved in the community,” Yassin explains.

Though the great workout and all of the mental health benefits are enough of a reason to find the FFC rewarding, for Yassin, watching the connections form between frontline workers is at the core of why he does what he does.

“It’s great team building and I see it a lot with the frontline [workers]. They work in different organizations and they come and chat with each other before and after the class, and they get to know each other and learn more about what the other organizations are doing,” says Yassin.

Sylla emphasizes that at the crux of it all, Eastside Boxing Club is community-driven and says those in charge strongly believe that a lack of financial resources should never be a barrier to getting a good workout.

“The core of our gym is to be a community,” Sylla says. “We are a non- profit, so we don’t do any of it for money. We do regular classes for people who can sign up and are able to pay for it, but if you can't... you can still come and you may find a different way, like cleaning the mirrors. We try to be that community boxing gym.”

Not your average gym

In fact, virtually everything the Eastside Boxing Club does is built around providing support for residents of the Downtown Eastside. The FFC is just one of its most recent initiatives.

Eastside Boxing Club was founded six years ago by Dave Schuck following the closure of the Astoria Boxing Club, where he was the head coach. When Schuck first opened Eastside Boxing Club’s doors in 2012, its primary mission was to ensure that everyone had access to regular exercise and could connect with their community through boxing. Some of the club’s other main programs focus on providing free boxing classes for at-risk youth, not to mention its free self-defence classes for all self-identified women and LGBTTQQ2S (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Queer, Questioning, Two-Spirited) members.

Eastside Boxing Club’s community director Leigh Carter explains the youth program in particular is about much more than boxing. It focuses largely on preventative work, making sure the kids who access Eastside Boxing Club’s services feel they are in a safe place and are surrounded by positive mentors. “Exercise isn’t the first thing we’re thinking about when they are coming through the door,” Carter says. “We want to be sure they’re doing alright at home and they have everything they need that’s going to help them be successful in life. Because ultimately, what these kids need is to be sure they’re supported, they have opportunities and that people care about them.”

First rule of fight club— talk about fight club

For Farrant, she stresses the importance of supporting frontline workers’ mental health and wants to get the word out so more people get involved with the Frontline Fight Club.

“I feel like it’s such a great program that the more people we can get in there, the better,” she says. “The emphasis is on self-care—preventative as opposed to when it gets to the end. My hope would be that organizations that are working down here have more programs in place to support their staff.”

Eastside Boxing Club’s free Frontline Fight Club classes are held every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. and every Friday at 9 a.m. If those times don’t fit with your schedule, Carter says Eastside Boxing Club is more than happy to help frontline workers find a way to get in the ring and reap the benefits of boxing.

If you work as a frontline worker and would like to get free passes to use at any of Eastside Boxing Club classes (not just the designated FFC morning classes), email coordinator@ for more information. 

Below are FFC members (from left) Meego Yassin (coach), Olivia Fauland, Ameer Moustafa, Sarah Whidden, Ara Van Der Mark, Gabrielle O'Neill, Christina Lahde, and Yacine Sylla (coach). Iman Baobeid photo.

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