UGG officially opened its doors February 15th 1999. The following is Peter Panetta’s story of how UGG came to be. Peter Panetta was born in France and moved to Thunder Bay at a young age. He was brought up very religious and served as an altar boy during his youth. These basic views of compassion for humanity have stuck with Peter for most of his life. Peter is the type of person who puts 110% into everything he does. He has been a great inspiration to countless children in the Thunder Bay and Winnipeg areas and continues to serve these communities through his dedication to the empowerment of youth.

After completing grade nine Peter’s life took a wrong turn. He dropped out of high school and spent the next three years hanging out with a rough crowd on the streets. Although Peter felt a strong sense of security from associating with his friends, he soon realized that the lifestyle he had developed was not for him. He came to this realization when he could not commit the more harmful crimes due to his innate care for people. At this time one of Peter’s childhood friends suggested he come to karate lessons with him. It took a fair deal of convincing before Peter finally went to a lesson.

Karate is where Peter found his passion – it was his turning point. For Peter, Karate was a great outlet. Unfortunately he was not working and therefore could not afford the $8/month fee to attend the lessons. When the Sensei at the Dojo found out that Peter could not afford to pay for the lessons he offered them to him for free. The Sensei became a great inspiration to Peter and the compassion that the Sensei showed is still recognized by Peter today. Peter was a natural athlete and Karate seemed to be the perfect fit. He progressed rapidly through the belt colours. The Sensei saw the potential for Peter to become a great teacher, so he eventually had Peter teaching the younger kids in the beginner classes. By then, Peter realized the great impact that he could have as a teacher. He enjoyed teaching immensely and that is still evident to this day. His commitment to the sport was already apparent and Peter dedicated his life to learning Karate for the next three years.

While attending karate lessons the Sensei approached Peter and asked why he didn’t finish high school and why he didn’t consider university. Peter laughed at the idea as he still felt that he was not the academic type and this was something impossible for him to achieve. After some persuasion Peter decided to take a university entrance exam to see if he could be admitted. To his surprise, he passed the exam and ended up enrolling in courses. During his first year, he had to enroll in an English literature class as a requirement for his program. He struggled in the class and began to doubt whether or not he was capable of passing the course. His professor took notice of the difficulty he was having and offered him extra help. Peter found this to be the inspiration he needed and with the help of his professor he eventually passed the course. Peter found this experience to be extremely empowering. After he passed the course he felt that he was now capable of achieving anything he set his mind to. He is extremely grateful for the help and inspiration that he received from his professor and stated “cool people in life make all the difference”. It is clear that through Peter’s work with UGG and his interactions with people that he has become one of those “cool people” that he has referred to.

Peter’s compassionate nature led him to his quest to build a safe haven for children where they could better themselves through sport. This dream would eventually manifest itself in the development of UGG. UGG first opened its doors on February 15th 1999. Peter had collected run down gym equipment from people who no longer had a use for it and decided to open a facility where the youth of the community could workout, train and just hang out in a safe environment. One of the underlying principles of UGG is that it is open to anyone, free of charge. Due to miscommunication with the building management that housed the original UGG, Peter was forced to seek another location. Devastated but not discouraged, he continued to pursue his dream. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it led Peter to the accessibility of his current location.

Peter acquired two buildings on Simpson Street through a city auction. The buildings cost $100 dollars each (no one else bid on them). When he took ownership of these buildings, they were in rough shape and required a lot of work. As he started fixing the buildings, people from the neighbourhood asked what he was opening. When he told them what his intentions were, they began helping with repairs. Plumbers and electricians volunteered their time to bring the buildings, with no water or hydro, up to code. Peter described the start of UGG as a “huge community project” and he is truly grateful to all those volunteers who have stopped by UGG over time. The help is ongoing to this day.

Ever since the installment at Simpson Street, UGG has had an impact on all youth that have walked through its doors. This is evident with many of the remarkable stories that Peter can share. One story is about Brandon, a troubled youth who grew up on Reservation 77 in Longlac. Longlac has had a reputation for being a rough place to grow up. Brandon first found out about UGG while he was incarcerated as a youth. He contacted Peter and asked him if he could come by the gym when he was released and start training. Peter told him that the gym would always be open for him and that he could come by whenever he wanted. Once released, Brandon started training under Peter’s guidance and it was clear that he had a natural talent for the sport of boxing. He was hard working and dedicated to honing his skills as a boxer. Over time, Brandon developed into a strong boxer and began competing in tournaments in places like Minneapolis and Toronto. Peter recalls that when Brandon would be boxing in competitions, he would yell “77” referring to the reservation where Brandon was from in order to hype himself up. Brandon was a very successful competitive boxer and even gained media recognition when CBC interviewed him for a story. Although there were many obstacles, which Brandon had to overcome, he has become an example of the positive impact that UGG can have on people. Brandon has turned his life around and has now decided to join the Canadian Armed Forces in order to serve his country.

In addition to the accomplishments of Brandon, Peter has also encouraged and supported many kids in the gym to compete in boxing tournaments. In the gym there is a poster from the Indigenous games where Peter brought four fighters to Denver, Colorado to box at a competitive level. This trip was sponsored by a local garage, which helped Peter to cover the expenses. As always, Peter volunteered his time, effort and coaching skills in order to help his fighters to build confidence and enhance their boxing skills.

UGG is not only up and running in Thunder Bay, Ontario it is also making a go in Winnipeg, Manitoba where the cost of all their programs is just “a smile”. After moving to Winnipeg, Peter’s children decided that city was also in dire need of a youth center like UGG. So together, with Peter, they opened the Winnipeg Underground Gym on April 10th 2011. At the Winnipeg UGG it is strictly a place to workout and train. Peter says that it is essentially what he viewed UGG as when he first imagined it. Programs available there are: martial arts classes, amateur boxing, weight lifting and cardio classes. The Winnipeg UGG has 200+ registered members and has around fifty members that come out every night. The gym opened due to a generous donation from a private donor and they have supplied enough funding to keep the gym open for a full year. Unfortunately, this year is coming to an end and there are not enough donors to keep the gym going. This is unfortunate due to the amount of kids who come through the doors every night and the positive impact it is having on the streets of Winnipeg. Peter and his children are currently doing all they can to seek the financial support that is needed to keep the gym open.

Along with Winnipeg’s dire need for support Peter states quite bluntly that there is no one to take over UGG in Thunder Bay when he can no longer manage it. This concerns him immensely as he can see the huge impact it is having on the area around him. He knows that volunteers can come in and run it but Peter is worried that no one will know how to run the business side of the gym as well as keeping it flexible enough to stay true to what UGG stands for. From its original location UGG is now much more than just a place to work out. It has become a social hangout for kids to come and get away from their troubles. It offers a great deal of opportunities to better themselves through music lessons (including guitar and piano), cooking lessons, boxing lessons, working out, doing arts and crafts and much more. The gym also fosters a great sense of community responsibility as the older kids are often helping out with taking care of the younger ones. Additionally, it is a place for kids to just relax and get a hot meal when they are hungry. UGG has stayed true to its core values by providing a free environment, which encourages a healthy lifestyle, physically, mentally and emotionally for any willing bodies.

Written by Matt Grad of Lakehead University: February 2012