The last thing Cece CuzaHoward ever thought she would learn was how to throw a decent punch. Raised in a devout Quaker household, she found the whole concept of boxing foreign.
"I'm religiously nonviolent.... I didn't have an interest in boxing before," CuzaHoward, 19, said.
Two years ago, CuzaHoward was a high school junior when KnockOuts for Girls came scouting at the Boys and Girls Club of Venice, where she was a regular. KO4G, as it is known, was looking for girls interested in learning to box and earning scholarships.
After a brief application process and weeks of bobbing, weaving and throwing jabs after school in the club's recreation room, CuzaHoward, received $3,000 from KO4G as its first scholarship recipient. The L.A. native who was raised by a single mother is now a sophomore at Tulane University in New Orleans and studying to complete an accelerated master's program in linguistics.
Founded by Pattianna Harootian and Lydia Castro in 2007, KO4G is a nonprofit boxing charity specializing in training, fundraising and providing scholarships for underprivileged girls.
Its core volunteers are models, amateur boxers and professionals who aren't above using sex appeal to generate support. The group's fliers, website promotions and events often feature young women in boxing gloves and bikinis — a marketing advantage most charities lack. Still, the organization says its commitment to helping girls like CuzaHoward is genuine.
"I've always done a lot of volunteer work," said Harootian, 40, of Costa Mesa. "There's just so many opportunities for women with an organization like this that we've started."
After five years teaching English and drama at schools in L.A., Boston and Washington, D.C., Harootian was introduced to boxing as a hired amateur competitor for a TV show called "Perfect 10 Model Boxing."
A year later, after the show was canceled, she reached out to friends and several other Perfect 10 boxers to start KO4G. The board of directors includes Harootian, Tanjareen Martin, Nina Ann Phan, Erika Flores, Wendy Augustine and Lexy Katzer.
"I never thought of boxing as something that would change my life," Harootian said.
Although earning a paycheck to fight was her original motivation, training and competing in the sport provoked a major lifestyle change. As a kid, she'd grown up shy and skinny. She said she also had an eating disorder, low self-esteem and limited athletic ability.
"It brought me discipline and structure and really gave me focus," Harootian said. "My life started improving and going in a positive direction.... I just wanted to share that with people."
For the last three years, KO4G has been expanding its programs to suit girls and women of all ages. Its free, six-week classes teach boxing basics in L.A., Orange County, San Diego and Arizona. (The classes do not involve sparring, although instructors do stage demonstration bouts.)
Weekly classes are followed by discussions in which instructors attack insecurities about body image and female stereotypes. It's a confidence booster that KO4G instructor Jill Morley finds effective.
"It's more about getting them in touch with the part of themselves that can fight back," said Morley, a former New York Golden Gloves contender instructing KO4G classes at the Boys and Girls Club in Santa Monica.
Some volunteers, such as Martin, 31, cite personal reasons for training young girls on how to defend themselves. Before helping to start the program, she had escaped an abusive relationship with an ex-fiance who broke into her house and beat her severely after she tried to break up with him.
"I've always said that because I didn't die from that experience that I'm here for something greater, to be a light for everyone else to see," Martin said.
KO4G's L.A. chapter has also held weekly classes at the Boys and Girls Club in Venice. And every year, the chapter is invited to teach a number of one-day classes at places like the Mar Vista Family Center in Culver City.
At 5 p.m. on a recent Monday, a squad of 17 giggly pre-teens gathered in Mar Vista's dance studio, fitted with pink, red and blue gloves. Tennis shoes squeaked on the linoleum floor as Harootian and eight of her KnockOuts held up punching pads while girls like Diana Valencia, 12, clobbered them with a newly learned one-two punch combo.
"Ducking and punching are my favorite parts," Diana said.
While much of its community service takes place with gloves on, the organization also touts nine other programs aimed at providing food, toys and supplies to needy children.
In the past, KO4G's Make a Kid Smile program helped social worker Ana Perez in the Bellflower United School District raise money for clothes, Thanksgiving dinners and a school-sanctioned field trip to Disneyland for low-income students.