While the idyllic beachside town of Tamarindo, Costa Rica may be a vacation destination for most, for Ron Jarman, it’s become home to one of his greatest passion projects. Hero Academy, originally founded in Costa Rica by American expats in the mid-2010s, started life as a run-of-the-mill, for-profit jiu-jitsu academy, catering to adult locals and tourists alike. When Jarman took over the jiu-jitsu program, however, the academy soon found a new purpose: providing free training and exercise to the town’s largely impoverished local children.
A jiu-jitsu brown belt and former Chicago-bred corporate salesman, Jarman had originally arrived in Costa Rica with his wife on something of a whim. “My story is a strange one, but it’s not anything crazy,” says Jarman with a laugh. “Basically, I was working a corporate job for ten plus years, I was doing advertising and sales, and my wife and I were buying some real estate on the side. And then I ended up getting fired from my job – it’s the only job I’ve ever gotten fired from. And I was terrible at it!” he confesses. “I was miserable.”
Which made the loss of his job, in some ways, a blessing in disguise. “The universe just aligned,” explains Jarman. “When all of that went down, [my wife and I] looked at our finances, and my wife was like, ‘I think we can retire.’” Jarman had scoffed at the notion at the time. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
His wife, thankfully for them both, turned out to be right. Thanks to some smart handling of their real estate assets, she made it happen, allowing them to retire to Costa Rica. And as it so happened, Jarman arrived in Tamarindo right when Hero Academy was in the process of opening.
“The charity part and the kids [program] all kind of happened by accident – it was a happy accident sort of thing,” Jarman explains to The Jiu-Jitsu Times. “When Rome [Za], the original founder, started the gym, his nanny at the time had a daughter who was getting bullied in school, and had very low self esteem. So she asked Rome like, ‘Hey, I heard martial arts can help kids with confidence, my daughter’s very depressed, can she come train with you guys?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’”
Sure enough, the daughter came to class – and brought a couple friends. The next week, more friends came along. And hence, HeroKids – the academy’s free children’s program – was born. “It was purely accidental and coincidental,” says Jarman. “And it’s funny, because when I was there at the beginning, and Rome was starting to get overwhelmed from wearing so many hats, he asked if I could take over the kids’ program, and I was like, ‘yeah, sure, whatever’ – but I didn’t really want to coach kids,” he confesses. He gives a self-deprecating laugh. “I don’t have any children, and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I even know how to coach kids!’”
Still, Jarman was game to learn. “When we started training the local kids, we knew that they didn’t have any money that they could afford to pay,” he shares. “And there was another charity in town here called CEPIA. So, CEPIA’s one of the biggest charities in Costa Rica, and they deal with a lot of issues like substance abuse and domestic violence in the home and those situations, because there aren’t a lot of government resources to deal with that sort of thing. So, they run a women’s shelter, and what they do is try to give women escaping abusive relationships – or relationships where there’s some kind of substance abuse going on – a place to go. And CEPIA has a big center about twenty minutes away from here.”
“When [CEPIA] heard that we were letting the local kids train for free, one of the girls running CEPIA at the time asked, ‘Hey, can I bring some of the CEPIA kids here’ – because what they basically try to do with the kids where there’s some kind of issue in the house is to keep them out of the house as much as possible. So they’ll go to school all day, they’ll go to CEPIA’s after-school program, and they they’d come to us.”
Jarman still remembers the first busload of kids from CEPIA who arrived at Hero Academy: “I’ll never forget, it was like forty kids,” he recalls. “We’d never had a class of more than like fifteen kids – it was crazy. So it just exploded at that point.”
The children ranged in age from three to eighteen – which also presented logistical challenges when it came to organizing classes by physical and developmental ability. Jarman and his colleagues, however, rose to the challenge. He credits their success to a thriving partnership with the local community: “The support that we’ve had from the local community has been amazing. When people see what we’re doing, and that we’re trying to help out, they really rise up. [The kids] don’t get the opportunity to do sports like this in any way – they’ll have a soccer ball [to play with], but they can never do martial arts, or organized sports like this.”
Hero Academy’s charitable endeavors have also extended beyond providing free jiu-jitsu to children in need. “During covid, we did a food program because everything shut down,” Jarman remembers. “A lot of the families here live paycheck-to-paycheck – like they’ll literally go buy some bird whistles and sell them down on the beach, and those are the families we try to support with the program. Two weeks into covid, when the borders shut down, they didn’t have any money, and they didn’t have any food. So we started getting calls, and we were like, ‘Alright guys, we’ll help you out with some food.’ We started putting together baskets. I put out one post after that, and every business in town, and every person that we knew, was instantly just dropping off food at the gym for us to distribute.”
According to Jarman, Hero Academy delivered approximately 180,000 meals over the course of nine months. “And it didn’t cost us a dime – it just cost us our time, you know?” Jarman marvels. “Like we had one guy who dropped off one thousand kilos of rice – he literally brought it in a truck.” He laughs at the memory. “And I was like, ‘I guess we’re a food bank now! We have no choice!’”
On a logistical level, Jarman’s also grateful for the professional experience of his wife, Holly Hetzel, who previously served on the board of Rainbows Chicago, a large charity focused specifically on working with young children who deal with trauma and loss. Hetzel’s professional experience in – and passion for – nonprofit work equipped her perfectly to handle the business side of Hero Academy. “She does all of the administration – she got everything set up,” says Jarman. “She’s kind of the behind-of-scenes who makes everything I do possible.” He offers a bashful chuckle. “I get all the reward in terms of playing with children, and hanging out with them, and doing jiu-jitsu.”
The real game changer for Hero Academy’s finances has been the retreat series – training camps hosted in Tamarindo, open to jiu-jitsu players all over the world, led by some of the biggest names in the sport. Tuition paid by camp participants – who are eager not only to study jiu-jitsu under world class athletes, but also to enjoy the plentiful tourist attractions of Costa Rica – has gone a long way toward funding the HeroKids program.
“The retreats grew completely organically,” says Jarman. “Henry Akins was coming down here every year and doing a retreat in the Diria Hotel, and there was a guy named Brad Nico out of the Kompound Gym in Denver, so he was running that for him – it was called Sub and Surf. But when we started, they saw that we were doing this kids’ program, and they were like, ‘Hey, we want to support you guys! Can we do our retreat inside of your gym?’”
At that point, according to Jarman, Hero Academy was only equipped with puzzle mats, and the bare minimum when it came to facilities. Nico responded to the situation by donating his own mats – and soon, the retreat was up and running.
That wound up setting a precedent in the global jiu-jitsu community, so far as Hero Academy was concerned. It wasn’t long before Jarman had a longer list of prospective camp instructors than he could reasonably invite to Tamarindo in a single year. “Our waiting list is currently about 150 for instructors,” says Jarman. “And I feel bad saying no to any of them, but I also can’t work 24/7, 365 days a year.”
Part of the popularity of Hero Academy as a retreat site stems from word of mouth: “Once a week, or once every two weeks, I’ll get a message on Instagram or Facebook or whatever, and it’ll be somebody who came to a camp, and they’ll be like, ‘Hey, I’m sitting here with Roy Dean right now, and he wants to come down,’ or ‘Hey, I’m sitting here with Renato Tavares, and he wants to come down.’”
Spoiled for choice among the sport’s most popular athletes, how does he decide who gets to run a camp at Hero? “It’s always a struggle for me, because we always get such big names and such amazing people who want to come down,” says Jarman. “So I really look for people who have a good connection [with students]. We kind of look for instructors – not so much celebrities. There’s a lot of big names in jiu-jitsu, but the most successful camps are typically the ones who have a good gym already. We’ve had some camps down here that don’t have the hugest names, but if they have a really great environment in their gym, it’s like a family vacation, almost. So that’s the one thing I really do look for when we bring someone down here – like, ‘okay, how many of their actual students are coming, versus random people?’ Because if your students want to hang out with you in Costa Rica, and go on a vacation with you, then they love you.”
The experience of participating in a charity retreat, according to Jarman, goes far beyond simply giving to a good cause. “I remember that during one retreat with Chewjitsu, we were up on a mountaintop for our outdoor session,” recalls Jarman. “And it was the most incredible, beautiful sunset that night. And for some reason, [training] just wound down really quickly – like we were rolling, but then everyone just started hanging out and watching the sunset. And then Chewy of all people was like, ‘Hey, why did you start doing jiu-jitsu?’ He circled us all up to give the reason why we’re into jiu-jitsu, and why we do this stuff. And some of the stories people had, to this day, will still bring a tear to my eye. You see the biggest, scariest dudes, who will talk about stuff that happened to them, and finding an outlet for that anxiety – and there were dudes crying on the mat in front of like thirty people. Thinking about it still makes me tear up – and there’s been a million instances like that.”
What is it about Costa Rica specifically that attracts and inspires so much love from the jiu-jitsu community as a whole? “My wife would say it’s like an energy vortex or something,” Jarman claims with a laugh. More seriously, he admits, “It’s a hard place to live, I’m not going to lie. But this place has a charm that I’ve never seen anywhere else before. There’s a simplicity here. People don’t care who you are, people don’t care what you do for a living – like, if you ask someone what they do for a living down here, it’s almost offensive. It doesn’t matter. They really work to live. So it’s not very focused on that nine-to-five grind, and I think that translates into almost everything here.”
So, what’s next for Hero Academy? “Our long term goal is to get [Hero Academy] fully self-sufficient,” says Jarman. “I want it to be a true community-based project. We’ve already got our students coaching classes, and I have every faith that they can run this without me being here. So I want it to be theirs, eventually. What I would have to do to make that happen is buy a piece of property that they wouldn’t have to rent out and stuff. So, that’s the long-term goal – and we’re actually pretty close to that. After just one year of camps, we’ve managed to save a good chunk of change. So yeah, we’d eventually like to buy a property and building, and kind of figure it out that way, so that we don’t have to worry about the rental aspect of it.
“Short term goals are to make sure that the retreats are able to continue funding us, so I want to make the best product available there, for people to get down here and enjoy the retreats. We do have some other programs, where you can sponsor a kid, and all that kind of stuff. We accept any kind of donations, as far as training gear, so if anyone wants to donate training gear or rash guards – we also give the kids all their school supplies every year. So anything like that always helps.”
A little goes a long way for the children that the program supports. “For the kids, when they get a T-shirt, it’s like the best day in the world,” says Jarman with a smile. “They love MMA and BJJ T-shirts. We gave away like ten T-shirts the other night, and it was like Christmas. So stuff like that, we always appreciate.” He laughs a little ruefully. “In some ways, I’m the worst person in the world to run a charity, because I hate asking for stuff – I’d rather earn it. So please, come down and enjoy a retreat!”
To support HeroKids, consider making a donation here.
To participate in a Hero Academy retreat, check out upcoming options here.
To stay up to date on Hero news and events, follow the academy on Instagram.