Jay Bowers, then a senior at the University of Georgia, was waiting for a campus bus when he noticed a female student sobbing through a swollen, bruised and bloodied eye.
“It looked like she’d been punched straight in the eye,” said Bowers. “I [had] this feeling that I needed to do something and that I could do something to help her, and I didn’t know what it was.”
The two boarded the same bus, and Bowers sat behind the girl, who cried for the duration of the ride.
“I choked. I didn’t do anything,” Bowers said. “I felt worse than I’ve ever felt in my whole life. I never forgot about it.”
Not long after this, Bowers was challenged by a business professor to create a business that would make money without using any money. He was stumped by the assignment, until a classmate and friend suggested he do what he’d done recreationally for years: teach boxing.
Bowers persuaded a few guys to pay him for lessons with the incentive that the inaugural Bulldawg Brawl, a student boxing event, was coming up and that Bowers could help them win the title.
His business venture took a fateful turn, however, when a female friend asked if she could participate, too. The woman brought a sorority sister with her to the first training session with Bowers, and in the coming weeks she brought nearly half her sorority. “It just went viral and it’s kept going,” Bowers said.
Soon Bowers was bringing boxing lessons — what used to be called “the manly art of self-defense” — directly to a number of sorority houses. The impact his lessons had on the young women’s confidence and self-respect led Bowers to realize that the training could have an even greater impact on women like the one he saw on the bus that day.
“It snapped in my mind — why I was so into teaching all of these girls how to box. It was because of that girl who had been hit.” Bowers said, “That was when I realized that I needed to start getting involved with domestic violence prevention.”
In 2010, the state of Georgia ranked 15th in domestic violence homicides, according to a study by the Violence Policy Center. Nationally, one in four women reports being a victim of severe physical violence in her lifetime, according to the CDC.
An easygoing environment
Bowers reached out to Project Safe, a nonprofit organization that helps women, children and animals in Northeast Georgia escape domestic violence and establish new lives.
But the organization was wary of a man seeking to teach battered women how to box, and he met resistance at first. Bowers proved himself by donating 10 percent of the proceeds he was generating from teaching boxing at sororities to Project Safe. Finally earning their trust, he was permitted to start giving boxing lessons to shelter residents.
“I knew without a doubt that what I was doing was right, so I wasn’t going to quit until I got in there,” said Bowers.
Considering the longtime medical criticism of boxing, what Bowers does may raise some eyebrows. But what the women learn to protect themselves has important benefits, especially self-respect.
He began teaching boxing at Project Safe this summer and now leads a class every Sunday. Being a trainer, however, is the least of it. His role as a friend and confidant is what both parties find most meaningful.
According to Jocelyn Marcus, a women’s advocate at Project Safe, “Everyone is dealing with really serious issues, and it can be a really stressful environment,” she said. “When Jay comes in, everyone laughs, and we feel a sense of community.”
One shelter resident was not only assured of the power of community, but of her own strength. “He’s taught me to respect myself,” she said. “I don’t have to put up with anybody’s abuse.”
Of course, the women aren’t the only ones learning. Bowers has also changed his perspective on what it means to help.
“I realized what I should have done that day on the bus. I didn’t need to teach her how to box. All I needed to do was talk to her,” Bowers said.