THUNDER BAY – Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the Underground Gym is settling into its new digs on Victoria Avenue, with youth who use the centre eager to help.
On Friday, a group of youth were painting a large donation box, which sits outside the centre and offers free essentials like clothing and food to anyone who needs them.
The design was developed by a handful of youth volunteers, with assistance from artist Yuk-Sem Won. She said she was inspired to get involved after she saw on social media that another volunteer had constructed a new wooden donation box for the centre.
“When I saw Peter got the donation of the box, people were saying ‘you should paint it,’ and he was just going to paint it black,” she said. “So I reached out and said if you want it to be painted, I’ll design something and work with the kids.”
Won met with a group of youth last week to talk about the designs.
“They told me what the gym meant to them,” she said. “They wanted friendship and family, a safe space, some respect [represented], and they wanted to use the medicine wheel colours to bring that community feel to it.”
She sketched a few designs based on the ideas, the youth selected one, and painting began on Friday, despite some inclement weather.
The youth jumped at the chance to learn about mural painting, techniques, and different kinds of paint brushes, she said.
Alicia Kowtiash and Summer Waboose were two of the youth volunteers armed with brushes outside of the Underground Gym on Friday.
They hoped the design they had selected, based around the medicine wheel, would help make the space welcoming to everyone, they said.
“It brings a lot of attention to the box where people can grab stuff they need," said Waboose.
For Kowtiash, the project was a ways to expand her creative pallette while giving back to the Underground Gym and founder Peter Panetta.
“I’m an artist, I like painting and all of that – and we like helping Peter,” she said.
Paint for the project was donated by Superior Coatings, Won said.
The Underground Gym opened with restrictions in its new location in March. The centre is considered an essential service as it offers food assistance, counselling, and other services, but cannot yet offer other non-essential programming.
In 2019, the gym was forced to close its Simpson Street location following structural damage from a nearby fire. The Victoria Avenue building, just down the block from city hall, was found last October.
The new, larger centre will offer more opportunities, Panetta said, with an art room, music room and other facilities. Volunteers are currently working to renovate parts of the interior to accommodate those new uses.
One thing that hasn't changed is the need in the community. Panetta said he's had a donation box outside of the gym since 2004, offering clothes, boots and shoes, eyeglasses, food – a "little bit of everything."
“There’s a lot of need and without folks having to come to knock at my door and ask, they can maintain some dignity," he said. “It’s just sad that we have [the need]. To me, a successful city would be that there’s no need for the Underground Gym or that box.”
The gym is just one of many organizations and individuals in the neighbourhood who do their best to meet those needs, Panetta noted.
“It’s beautiful to see," he said. "There’s a lot of people that are doing a lot of good things.”