BJJ can change the life of people who decide to take the first step onto the mat – whether by helping them in an altercation, avoid an altercation, get in shape, or simply gain confidence. However, not everyone can afford or access a local BJJ gym, and sometimes these individuals are the people who could benefit from BJJ the most.
A new project is looking to change that: the Guardian Project was founded by Ben Kovacs and Joel Lunenfeld, and provides free training to at-risk and underprivileged youths who are in need of positive role models and constructive activities.
I had the opportunity to speak with Calder Powers, the project’s Executive Director and BJJ brown belt, and this is what I took away from that conversation:
The Guardian Project’s Mission
The Guardian Project’s mission is to use Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a vehicle to improve the lives of at-risk youths. Providing free training to at-risk children and teenagers helps surround them with positive role models and a positive peer group.
The secondary goal of the Guardian Project is to inspire other academies all over the world to start similar programs. The hope is that one day Brazilian Jiu Jitsu will be accessible to any child who wants to train. Currently, the Guardian project has locations in the United States, Peru, and very soon Mongolia!
Why was the Guardian Project Founded?
The Guardian Project was founded in 2015 by Ben Kovacs and Joel Lunenfeld. The original idea was to structure a BJJ gym like the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program. They founded it with the idea that the adults of a gym could sponsor the children who wanted to train but couldn’t.
Who is Eligible for the Guardian Project?
Currently, the Guardian Project has an application a parent or caretaker can fill out to see if their child is eligible to be part of the Guardian project.
Most of the sponsored youths are teens between the ages of 14-18. This is because this is the age bracket the project believes it can have the greatest impact upon. However, the project accepts applications for children as young as six years old.
Making the Project Global
Currently, the project’s headquarters location is in Berkley, California and the organization also has a location in Baltimore. Recently Project Guardian has expanded beyond the US borders, bringing BJJ to at-risk youths in Mancora, Peru.
Mancora is a small town with 15,000 people. Of that population, thirty percent are under fifteen years old. The gym in Mancora is taught by 2nd-degree black belt Salvatore Sanguinetti.
Currently, the gym in Mancora is an open-air gym, and many of their athletes wear donated Gis. The project currently has thirty available spots for kids and having any one of these spots can be life-changing for the children of Mancora. Mancora currently struggles with poverty and doesn’t have many opportunities for youths.
The Guardian Project will soon be opening a location in Mongolia. Mongolia also has many underprivileged youths and the Guardian Project believes their program will be able to make a difference there as well. Not content to only expand abroad, the program is planning a new location in Los Angeles, CA.
Many of the success stories the Guardian Project has are deeply personal and heartwarming. Devin’s story is one example which highlights the project’s benefits. Devin spent most of his childhood being moved from foster home to foster home and was often getting into fights.
Devin was granted a space in the Guardian Project and through being a student there he gained a sense of stability and a place where he felt welcomed! The importance of community is hard to overstate and BJJ creates community like nothing else. If you’d like to hear more about Devon’s story, you can watch it here:
We learned from Powers, the project’s Executive Director, that Project Guardian is now working on getting quantitative facts to demonstrate empirically the benefits of BJJ. For practitioners the benefits are obvious, but as a 501c3 non-profit organization the organization relies on donations for fundings and most donors have never heard of nor practiced BJJ!
What the Guardian Project Means for Jiu Jitsu
The Guardian Project wants gym owners to understand that they are not trying to make them give away their kid’s program for free. Especially because the kid’s program is how many gyms earn a huge amount of their income. Instead, the Guardian Project sees Jiu Jitsu as a potential vector to reach kids who wouldn’t be able to train otherwise.
A big reason some BJJ athletes train for so long is because of how the sport has impacted their lives. The Guardian Project provides a unique opportunity for these athletes to give back to their community in another way. If a lifelong BJJ athlete can offer a child the opportunity to train; then one day that child may become a lifelong BJJ athlete. They can take a step into a larger world.
When you get really good at something as difficult as Jiu Jitsu, it makes everything in your life better.– Joe Rogan
How is the Guardian Project Funded?
Currently, the Guardian Project is completely funded by donations and staffed by volunteers. Many academies donate their space for the project during after-school hours. This time is important because this is when at-risk youths can benefit most from structured activity.
How can I help?
If you would like to help the Guardian Project by donating, you can visit their website: www.guardiangym.org They accept donations through PayPal and Venmo. All donations are tax-deductible.
If you would like to help out another way by donating your time by volunteering, seeing if you can get the project at your gym, or by helping out some other way, you can reach out to them directly. With a project like this community help is essential, and anything you can give helps!
Is the Guardian Project going to open other locations?
The Guardian Project has just announced new locations opening in Mongolia, and in LA!
What ages does Guardian have the most impact on?
Currently, the Guardian gym believes the kids who change the most in the program are teenagers, aged 14-18. This is because this is the time they are most at risk and most in need of a positive after-school environment. However, the project recognizes the benefits of BJJ for younger children as well, and they try to accept as many at-risk youths as they can.
Do the families of the Guardian Project Members have to pay anything?
There is no cost to families with children training in the Guardian Project program. The Guardian program sponsors children for as long as they can train. For many athletes who train Jiu Jitsu, the gym feels like a home away from home. This is what the guardian project strives to create for at-risk children.
Jack is a BJJ purple belt who holds a bachelors degree in English Literature. He enjoys traveling, reading, and the Bow and Arrow choke. One day he hopes to teach English overseas and become a published author.