It’s not hard to find a story about how jiu-jitsu changed someone’s life. Whether online or at our own academies, we often see real-life examples of how this sport can help someone lose weight, get his mental illness under control, or simply provide something to look forward to after a long day at work or school.
But thanks to the work of a few very special people, this martial art is now playing an instrumental part in changing an entire community . . . and it all starts with the kids.
Brown belt Ralph Rodriguez and black belt Alex Martins have both had enough time on the mats to see the incredible things jiu-jitsu can do. “The jiu-jitsu community has so much to offer,” says Rodriguez, who was a silver medalist at the 2013 Pan Ams. “It doesn’t matter where you come from or what language you speak – you can jump on the mat anywhere in the world and instantly have friends.”
It was this universal love for the sport that led Rodriguez and Martins to become best friends despite the fact that Martins barely spoke English when he moved to Dallas, Texas, from Manaus, Brazil. Because he had a hard time pronouncing and remembering the American names of everyone he met, Martins simply greeted everyone with a big smile on his face and an enthusiastic “Hey, buddy!” What started as a friendly way to overcome a language barrier soon turned into a hashtag, and later, something much, much bigger.
Back in March, Martins and Rodriguez decided that they wanted to give back some of what jiu-jitsu had given them. They partnered up with Lonnie Sawyer and Care Center Ministries, which, since 2010, has hosted an after-school program for kids in Pleasant Grove, one of the poorest zip codes in the area.
“They were already doing so many good things,” says Rodriguez. “This pastor was picking up 85 kids from nine different schools. He was feeding 35,000 people a year running a food pantry. The kids already had access to things like a basketball court, so Alex and I thought, why not start a jiu-jitsu program, too?”
The friends named the program “Hey Buddy”: a phrase that had become increasingly popular in the Dallas-area jiu-jitsu community thanks to Martins and his many fans and friends. But now, it was more than just a friendly greeting; it was a symbol of unity and friendship for 54 kids who needed positive role models in their lives. Many of the kids have grown up with single mothers who had struggled to give their kids the childhood they wanted while still staying afloat financially. Hey Buddy was a way for the kids to not only get active and learn skills that would boost their self-esteem, but also a way for parents and children to get involved in something together.
“I’ve started to engage family members,” says Rodriguez, who often finds himself coaching dozens of kids in a single class. “We make them part of the deal. We started seeing not only moms, but also extended family members like uncles coming in to watch the kids train. A lot of them don’t have the resources to take their children to cool events, but thanks to the Hey Buddy program and some help from Seth Daniels, they recently got to go to a Fight To Win Pro event together. These family members really want the best for the kids, and we’re doing what we can to help out and give them framework that they can use outside of the gym.”
Much of that framework comes in the discipline, respect, and perseverance that the kids are taught through jiu-jitsu. Martins, who recently won the masters 2 middleweight division at Master Worlds, emphasizes that especially at the age they are now, the kids in the Hey Buddy program are going to reap the benefits of participating in such a special martial art.
“We show them that in life, we have good and bad days, but we have to move forward without waiting for anybody. Jiu-jitsu teaches us that we can continue forward even when things are difficult,” he said.
For kids who have grown up amidst poverty and crime, Rodriguez says that these lessons in moving forward are crucial if they are to grow up to be successful adults.
“Older people are more set in their ways; it’s hard to get them to change the way they’ve been their entire lives. But if a kid learns early on that he can overcome the obstacles he’s faced with, he’s going to grow up having a stronger foundation and be less likely to get mixed up with the wrong crowd.”
The Hey Buddy BJJ program has only been around for a short time, but the kids are already tearing down both small and large obstacles thanks to the lessons that jiu-jitsu teaches them. Sometimes, it comes in the form of executing a perfect takedown when the concept seemed impossible just weeks before. Other times, it comes in the form of a solid handshake and steady eye contact: something that they would have never been confident enough to do before they learned so many important life lessons from their coaches and mentors.
“Because they don’t want to let you down, it makes it easier to hold them accountable. Sometimes, you have to sit them down and say, ‘You’re out of line. I have really high hopes for you, but you need to work with me.’ If you give them the right tools, they’ll surprise you,” said Rodriguez.
The work that Rodriguez and Martins do is truly priceless, but it doesn’t make their wallets any fatter. The donations that fuel the program go towards buying equipment such as mats, gis, and rashguards for the kids, as well as paying tournament entry fees. Thanks to Hey Buddy’s partnership with Cruz CMBT, people who want to support the program can get awesome gear for themselves – including rashguards, t-shirts, and gi patches – while helping to fund the jiu-jitsu journeys of kids in need. But even if getting more jiu-jitsu stuff isn’t in the budget, people can help the cause by sharing Hey Buddy with their friends.
“Anything helps,” says Martins. “Some people pay the kids’ tournament entry fees, some donate gis, some share the hashtag on social media. Exposure is very important to helping the program grow, so we’re happy just to see people sharing the page on Facebook.”
Hey Buddy is still very young, but with dozens of kids already staying active in the program, Martins and Rodriguez know that it has potential for growth. While they don’t have any immediate plans for expansion, they’re keeping their options open. The more people get involved, the more likely it is that Hey Buddy will be able to make an impact in other cities around the country.
“The most important thing is to help the kids. That’s what we’re here for,” said Martins. “Now that we have parents and some academy students helping out, we can continue to welcome even more kids and help Hey Buddy continue to grow.”
If you want to help jiu-jitsu change these kids’ lives, head over to the Hey Buddy Facebook and Instagram pages to stay up-to-date with all the cool things the kids and coaches are doing. You’ll also see posts for cool gear whose proceeds go towards the organization, all of which you can buy here.
Thanks to some selfless and dedicated people, Hey Buddy is transforming a community through Brazilian jiu-jitsu one kid at a time. It takes a lot to make something like this possible, but its success is proof that small changes to individual people can create a ripple effect that spreads throughout an entire region. Jiu-jitsu changes lives, sure, but thanks to a program whose very existence is based on friendship and overcoming challenges, it’s taken another step forward in changing the world.