Mary Kate Vanecko ’17 in her senior year at Holy Cross
Vanecko with students from the Johnson Nqonqoza Senior Secondary School, Somerset East, Eastern Cape of South Africa, during her Fulbright year
in FLAG’s after-school program at Somerset East in the Eastern Cape of South Africa
Mary Kate Vanecko ’17 first discovered boxing as a way to cross-train while playing varsity lacrosse at Holy Cross. She liked it so much, she joined the boxing club at Trinity College in Dublin while studying abroad junior year. When Vanecko headed to South Africa after graduation to teach English on a Fulbright grant, it was only natural to pack her boxing gloves.
The high school in South Africa where she taught didn’t have any sports or extracurriculars for students. So Vanecko pulled out her gloves and started an after-school boxing program. “The best part of my Fulbright was getting to do this boxing,” she says.
She planned to coach only girls, but there was so much interest, she ran sessions for boys as well. “The school loved boxing because it gave kids something to do,” says Vanecko, who was a political science major at Holy Cross. “It’s incredible how sports can unite people.”
She met another local boxing coach who was training kids for free as a way to help them stay in school and provide more opportunity amidst often challenging circumstances. Visiting his gym one day, she saw two young girls sparring. “Not just swinging, but very technical boxing with really impressive combinations,” Vanecko recalls. “When I saw that, I wanted everyone who’s ever doubted what a girl could do to see girls box. It’s a powerful way to slowly change mindsets around how we think about gender and strength.”
Vanecko returned to the U.S. in 2018 and the following year founded a nonprofit, Box United, as a way to support the South African community working to give young people more opportunity through boxing. She held fundraisers, but wanted to provide more than just money. That’s when she came up with the idea for Fight Like a Girl (FLAG) — a two-way cross-cultural exchange and boxing empowerment program for high school girls in the (left to right) Vanecko in her senior year at Holy Cross; with students from the Johnson Nqonqoza Senior Secondary School, Somerset East, Eastern Cape of South Africa, during her Fulbright year; youth boxers in FLAG’s after-school program at Somerset East in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. U.S. and South Africa.
Vanecko applied for and won a grant for Fulbright alumni, securing funding for FLAG through the U.S. State Department and its partner, the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town.
“Now, we have 100 girls from four different high schools; there are 60 girls in South Africa who are doing an in-person program, and there are 40 girls in Chicago who are doing a virtual program,” Vanecko says. “We teach girls how to box to hip-hop music: a way that’s fun and approachable.”
The girls follow a 10-week curriculum that weaves boxing lessons with reflection, discussion, mindfulness and leadership development — culminating in the girls creating their own community impact projects. Vanecko and her team also invite local women leaders to speak. “We do a lot of work on establishing a good relationship with your body and recognizing your own strength and power,” she says. “So often girls are told, ‘You shouldn’t be aggressive’ and ‘You shouldn’t be ambitious.’ I think for girls it’s so important to be able to see: I can be a fighter. To identify as that is something so life-changing.”
Vanecko can relate: “Sometimes people might dismiss me as being too nice, but boxing has helped me see that I have this totally strong and powerful side.”
Even though the travel exchange portion of FLAG is on hold for now due to the pandemic, the team creatively navigates an eight-hour time difference to allow the girls in Chicago and South Africa to connect via Zoom and still have a cross-cultural experience. Vanecko sees potential to use online platforms to help grow the program.
Juggling her day job in management consulting at Accenture in Chicago, Vanecko runs FLAG with help from her team — which includes two Holy Cross student interns, Renata Palua ’21 and Sofi Torres-Kennedy ’21. Vanecko adds that fellow alumna Callie Cummings ’15 played an integral role in bringing FLAG to Loyola Academy, a high school outside Chicago where she teaches and Vanecko attended.
Holy Cross has entirely shaped Vanecko’s journey, she says: “Everything I do in my life, in a way, is deeply tied to Holy Cross, from the liberal arts perspective, to playing on the lacrosse team, to this Fulbright experience that I don’t think I would have gotten if I went to another school.” Her experiences in the Holy Cross Women’s Forum also help her lead FLAG discussions, she says, and she’s constantly drawing on entrepreneurial skills learned as a participant in the College’s Shark Tank Competition.
Vanecko has big dreams for FLAG. She’s focused on gathering data and hopes to be able to eventually scale the program and bring it to more schools: “My one driving thing I always come back to: How can more girls around the world have access to the lifechanging power of sport?”
Written by Meredith Fidrocki for the Winter 2021 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
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