"My name is Jovanni. I am 16 years old. I used to struggle with being hungry. Level Ground taught me that the protective shell I'd built was hurting me more than the things I thought it was keeping out. Thanks to Level Ground, I've found a job and I have an income. I've also found a leader in myself. I've got a second chance."
In June 2013, a young woman sat in her car in one of Boston's most impoverished neighborhoods. Her hands trembled with excitement as she called Hudson, her best friend and teammate. "I got a space for that inner city Jiu Jitsu and MMA program I've been sayin' I wanna start. Wanna help me teach? Who knows, it could really blow up."
The next month they started teaching the ground-fighting sport of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Neighborhood boys watched incredulously, not knowing what to think of the two 20-something grapplers and their three students. They demonstrated the "guard" and "arm bar" with unbridled enthusiasm, reprimanded students for failing to bow to the mat before stepping on to train... and hounded them for hugs after practice.
Slowly but surely, more students appeared. Five students on the mat. Seven. Eleven. Fifteen. Skeptical onlookers became intrigued by the sport, that combined grueling physical exercise with the excitement of learning new techniques. It opened a gateway for young people to connect regardless of how 'cool' they were or what clothes they wore. In essence, it tore down the barriers that based a person's worth on economic status and established a true family through sweat, blood, laughter, and tears.
Fast-forward 15 months and Level Ground Mixed Martial Arts is a nonprofit organization on a mission "to unleash the strength, power, and ingenuity of urban youth, so that they will fight for -- and seize -- their dreams." The organization is run by Alexandra (Ali) Fuller, the same woman who made that initial phone call. Level Ground now serves 100 Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai students.
Already an experienced youth worker with an MBA, Ali quit her job four months after starting the pilot program, immediately realizing that addressing issues of systemic social injustice, poverty, and marginalization would require her attention full-time.
Over the past year, Level Ground's model has developed into three "off-the-mat" components: professional mentorship, academic advancement, and youth employment. Today, the same students who struggled to learn the basics compete in major Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitions across New England. On and off the mat, lives have been transformed.
"J" trained at Level Ground intermittently, showing up consistently for two or three weeks but disappearing for several days after training. Ali and Hudson discovered he couldn't work out regularly because he experienced extreme post-training fatigue due to malnutrition. Like his brothers (all of whom have been repeatedly incarcerated) "J" needed money for food, and started selling marijuana to get it. He started carrying weapons. Level Ground pulled "J" off this one-way path and gave him a part-time job. He stopped selling and works with Level Ground 15 hours per week, which gives him the money he needs. "J" starts his monthly blog in January, pursuing his dream of being a writer and editor.
"F" came to Level Ground at age 20, having recently transitioned from prison. The organization helped him complete his high school diploma and enter college at Northeastern University. An artist, he is Level Ground's Program Coordinator and handles brand development and creative direction. "E" came to the organization drastically overweight. The sport has helped him lose more than 100 pounds, and has made him a force to be reckoned with on the mat (demonstrated by his first-place win at the North American Grappling Championship). "M" arrived at Level Ground during her struggle to end a physically abusive relationship. On the mat, she found the confidence and determination she had been waiting to unleash. Not only did Level Ground facilitate her study at Northeastern; she also works with the organization, facilitating Youth Staff meetings and co-hosting professional development workshops for younger students.
More stories of change, transformation, and hope happen every day as Level Ground evolves. Ali and Hudson hope to open a premier urban Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts studio by 2016. This studio will serve more than 200 youths, both on and off the mat, and will also provide low-income adults with the opportunity to train, addressing the health disparities plaguing Boston's urban neighborhoods.
As Level Ground expands and hundreds of lives are transformed, what will always remain will be the authentic and raw relationships informed by trust and love... infused with the passion of one 26-year-old's leap of faith towards her dream.
Level Ground Mixed Martial Arts is currently undergoing an Indiegogo campaign to raise a minimum of $15,000 by January 24 to expand their athletic, academic, professional development, and employment programming. Funds raised in excess will be channeled toward the organization's Urban Mixed Martial Arts studio. Please make your tax-deductible donation today at www.levelgroundmma.org, and help me create a LEVEL GROUND for Boston's urban youth.
For more, and to watch the Level Ground video, click here.