Fitness that empowers

Annie Zawadi says she used to be a victim of domestic abuse.

Today she is the proud founder and executive director of the Arising Women’s Place, a centre that offers support and empowerment for other women fleeing violence in the east Scarborough region.

“Most of the women won’t come out and disclose that they are in an abusive relationship,” says Zawadi, who founded the centre in 2000. “We need to give [women] that safe place where they feel comfortable enough to go to the point when they disclose.”

That is why Zawadi and her business partner and project assistant Naomi Smith started the Soft Fitness program in May, 2008.

With the help of the Ontario Trillium Foundation, Soft Fitness has offered a combination of yoga, belly-dancing and self-defense classes for female victims of domestic abuse as well as seniors and men.

“Our founding mandate is to serve women and girls fleeing abuse,” Zawadi says.

“Not only do we want to improve the well-being, the physical activity, and the safety of the participants, but also it’s a place for people to meet and make new friends.”

Zawadi says her organization reaches out to people of all ages and physical abilities and the classes are a form of therapy for the body and mind, especially for women who used to or are still living in violent households.

“This topic [of domestic violence] is not an easy one,” Zawadi says. “People want to be involved but they really don’t want to.

“They want to take advantage that we are here but they don’t want to be seen as being a part of us.”

Smith also says they hope to take women out of isolation with these classes as well as bring attention about domestic abuse to the men of the community.

“We hope to bring awareness of health benefits from exercise for women and to let women know that these services are available within the community,” Smith says.

Although it takes time for women to come forward and support one another through the organization, Zawadi has seen a lot of support come in from the Toronto Community Housing Corporation as well as from local councillors Paul Ainslie and Margaret Best.

“The community hasn’t been very supportive with donations,” Zawadi says. “But they have been supportive in the way that they spread the word and they also send us referrals.”

The Arising Women’s Place has three locations in east Scarborough with the main one at 4525 Lawrence Ave. E.

Fitness classes are offered free of charge on Mondays and Fridays every week.