April is Autism Awareness Month, and Jiu-Jitsu Times had the honor of speaking with the founder of Blackbelts for Butterflies, Rich McKeegan. He is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt determined to bring beauty out of tragedy. On December 14, 2012, Rich and his wife, Josie, welcomed their first child into the world. On that same morning, the news of the Sandy Hook school shooting screamed through their hospital television.
What was the happiest day in Rich’s life was the worst day of many other parents’ lives, and he couldn’t NOT do something. He started Black Belts for Butterflies (BB4BF), and has created a network of BJJ legends to not only remember the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting, but to also improve the world of children with Autism.
Jiu-Jitsu Times: What made you decide to partner with Dylan’s Wings of Change?
Rich McKeegan: I originally started with making patches for Newtown with 100% of proceeds going to the Victims of Sandy Hook UConn Scholarship Foundation. Not long after that, I met a woman from Newton who had started training with a family who lost their son, Dylan, in the Sandy Hook tragedy. He was a sweet, energetic six year old with autism who died in the arms of his teacher, Anne Marie Murphy, as she shielded him from bullets. I met Dylan’s Father Ian and knew immediately that our lives would be intertwined. They called Dylan their butterfly and one day coming home from work it hit me, Blackbelts for Butterflies. The name and the path we would embark on became a little more clear.
JJT: What are some things you wish people knew about Autism?
RM: You have to be living under a rock to not be aware of Autism at this point, so now we’re really working toward acceptance and empathy. Autism is all around us, maybe you don’t even know the little girl or boy that is a little different to you or your children might be on the spectrum. So, our next venture is to begin a Wingman program at our academy. The Wingman program is designed to help children understand Autism a little better but also instill qualities that help children become confident and caring. We asked ourselves, “What qualities do you want to see in children?” The answers we found were all based on the Bushido code: loyalty, courage, veracity, compassion, and honor is important, above all else… that’s what we want to teach kids
while we have their attention on the mats.
JJT: When you decided the best fundraiser would be a super seminar, did you expect it to become a recurring event?
RM: I really didn’t have any foresight if it would be successful. It had never been done, so I had no idea what to expect. I decided to plan the event and just see how it went. The only word I can use for the first super seminar was “magical”. It was super emotional, and I look back on it and I’m very proud.
JJT: When you organized the first seminar, who did you reach out to first and why?
RM: Brad Wilson and Jason Bell were two local black belts in Connecticut that I had trained with. I really looked up to both of them, and they were immediately on board. I also contacted Piet Wilhelm from OK, and Robert Defranco from TX, both of them had flown out to CT a couple of months after the shooting to put on a small charity seminar which planted the seed for BB4BF to come to fruition a year later.
JJT: How do you decide on the black belts you want to invite to be a part of your seminars?
RM: I like to have a mix of black belts that have some notoriety, but also black belts that are genuinely good people that I’ve become friends with through training and networking. It’s really about the heart of each one. Robert DeFranco, James Foster, Tony Gioffre, Bryant Pangelinan are the four Champions of BB4BF have been with me from the beginning. Over the years, I’ve also had black belts like Caio Terra, Yuri Simoes, Marcela Garcia, Kristina Barlan, Emily Kwok, and Kurt Osiander.
JJT: If someone can’t make it to a seminar, what are some other ways they can contribute?
RM: Find a local, small nonprofit that benefits autism and donate or volunteer. Whatever state our seminars are in, we find a local nonprofit in that state to give donations to. You can also buy a patch and wear it to spread the word.
The next super seminar will be in California in mid August. Like their Facebook page to stay up to date.
You can also buy patches and learn more ways to support by clicking the photo below.