Javier Valenzuela followed a hard path growing up, one he hopes others won’t have to take. He’s using martial arts to help kids find their way. His Train 2 Thrive Judo program in Willmar focuses on supporting at-risk youth with free classes in judo and jujitsu. A grant from Southwest Initiative Foundation helped fund the class in its first season, which ended with the school year in spring.
Thirty years ago, Javier left Mexico for the United States. He was 16 years old and had only himself to rely on, attending school at night and working during the day.
“I know what it is to struggle, I know what it is to go hungry, I know what it is not to have money,” Javier said. “I was a gang member; I was a drug addict. I’m going on 24 years sober. If I would have found somebody like me who said, ‘Do this,’ I would not have gotten in trouble. It would have been different.”
Purpose has helped Javier navigate life. He’s 20 years into a career with Bremer Bank where he works as a Community Banker. About eight years ago, a colleague at the bank connected him to martial arts classes in Willmar with Great Lakes Training Group.
“I got involved and moved up through the ranks of the school. The reason why I fell in love is that I love the art,” Javier said. “The word ‘judo’ means ‘the gentle way.’ It’s defensive. It is one of those disciplines where we are being attacked, and we use that person’s momentum. They pull us, we push. It’s standing ground. Jujitsu is a ground game. It’s a martial arts discipline that involves leg locks, wrist locks. When people are fighting on the ground, that’s jujitsu.”
The idea to use martial arts to mentor kids came to Javier when he saw that a young person from Willmar had been shot in the face in an incident following the murder of George Floyd. He wanted to help youth who identify as Black, Indigenous or people of color process emotions and connect them to caring adults.
“It helps them stay away from trouble when they are not in school, be more patient and channel their anger into something positive. You don’t have to be preachy to people to show them you love them, to show them you care,” said Javier, who prefers to model positive behavior.
Train 2 Thrive Judo has trained 21 kids in jujitsu and 15 in judo. The free training is also open to interested adults, and 15 have participated. During the school year, the class meets two to three times a week. There have also been quarterly self-defense classes open to the public for free. Eric Holien with Great Lakes Training Group teaches alongside Javier as a volunteer.
“I wouldn’t be able to do any of it without Eric. I owe him so much because he takes time of his own to teach me and mentor me in martial arts beyond the school hours. He’s partner on this venture,” Javier said.
The SWIF grant helped cover costs for equipment, while other grants went toward monthly rent. Program fees from other classes at the studio also subsidize the costs. Currently, United Community Action Partnership is the fiscal host for Train 2 Thrive, but Javier is working on starting his own nonprofit to receive grants and donations directly.
“To reach the future we want for our region, we need to ensure all our kids and families are set up for success. Javier is one of the people who has the passion and vision to come through for kids in a big way, and we’re happy to support Train 2 Thrive Judo in Willmar with a Grow Our Own grant from the foundation,” said Nancy Fasching, Vice President of Community Impact at SWIF.
Javier has seen what martial arts can do for a kid facing challenges, like Olivia Maertens. Javier remembers Olivia as very timid when her mom first brought her by the studio four years ago. Now he describes her as “super competitive.” She’s earned a brown belt and is an assistant instructor.
“She’s not afraid; she’s confident enough to teach a class of grown-up guys and correct them. When I see that, that’s like WOW,” Javier said.
Sports have always been a haven for Olivia. She’s confronted health issues – including an epilepsy diagnosis at age 12 that felt devastating. When she started taking classes with Great Lakes Training Group, she kept her diagnosis mostly to herself. And with each throw and takedown she practiced, she proved to herself that epilepsy doesn’t define who she is.
“I’m just me, I’m just Olivia [at the studio]. I’m not shy to take on the challenges I face there. I’m always trying to learn. It’s just really helped me grow into who I am. I started young, and I grew up with these people, in a sense. I just kind of soaked up all the information they gave me. I got closer to the people who were there, and it’s a second home to me,” Olivia said.
Olivia lives with her family in Spicer. Her dad’s Caucasian and her mom’s Mexican, and she feels strongly connected to both cultures. She also has an older brother. Olivia attends homeschool, is a PSEO student at Ridgewater College and works part-time at the Spicer Public Library. She’ll graduate from high school and with an associate degree this spring. Martial arts continues to be an outlet when things are hard.
“Sports are a distraction for me. Sometimes college and life get really rough and really busy. I know I have a lot of work to do, so I get to do something that I love and get that break. I like learning and being able to talk with people and relax and forget the world for a little while,” Olivia said. “It’s a good workout.”
She credits Javier with helping her and other students, calling out his patience, sense of humor and drive.
“We rely on Javier a lot. He’s one of the main caretakers, so a lot of things fall on his shoulders. He’s always in a good mood, though. He tries to make it as fun as possible. We all do our best to help him out and try and assist him in whatever he needs because we know he’s trying his hardest to keep the studio going. He loves doing martial arts,” Olivia said.
Going forward, Javier wants to increase enrollment in the program and try different funding models with goal of bringing the positive influence of martial arts to more young people.
“When I refer to them, I refer to them as my kids. I know the risks of troubled kids. I was in that age group. I may be an old guy, but I’m a kid at heart,” Javier said.
Thanks to the generosity of donors, Southwest Initiative Foundation distributed 1,029 grants totaling $6.6 million from all our funds in fiscal year 2022. Read more from our Fiscal Year 2022 Annual Impact Report.