As a nation, we have all felt the repercussions of the recession in one way or another. But some areas have definitely been hit harder than others. With the recent spotlights on cities like Detroit and Baltimore, many people are becoming very aware of just how desperate it is getting for some communities. What many may not be aware of however, is that the state with the highest poverty rate in the nation has gone relatively unmentioned. In 2013 Mississippi reported a staggering 695,915 people living below the poverty line, leaving the second highest state behind by over 247,000 people. The communities hit the hardest are small rural towns with little infrastructure, and the inner city of the state’s capital, Jackson. In national crime rate standings, where an index score of the safest city would be 100, Jackson recently received an index score of 2. Meaning that it is only considered safer than 2% of other cities in the United States.
While all of Jackson has its share of crime, it is almost unanimously agreed that its most dangerous area is South Jackson. With a 93% poverty rate and an out of control gang problem, residents of South Jackson live in constant struggle. The city’s mayor Tony Yarber, who grew up and still resides in the neighborhood recently acknowledged in an interview that the murder rate is already up 75 percent from last year. With many local businesses and national retail stores leaving town and taking jobs with them, the outlook is bleak for the neighborhood. Especially for the youth who live there. Mississippi has one of the nation’s highest public school drop-out rates and the temptation of joining a gang and selling drugs is too great for many of South Jackson’s kids to resist. Admittedly, this all seems rather grim, but there is a light in the darkness. In one of South Jackson’s struggling high schools, kids are finding an alternative path through an after school program hosted by one of their math teachers, Beth Thrasher and her husband Chris.
The program is called Vector Jiu-Jitsu. The name is a nod to Chris’s love for physics, which he emphasizes when teaching their students. The couple met in Jiu-Jitsu class in 2008, shortly after Beth moved to Mississippi from upstate New York for an opportunity to be a public school teacher. Chris, a Mississippi native, began his training in 2004. While dealing with depression after the real estate bubble popped, causing his job as a mortgage broker to come to an end, he desperately needed an outlet. After watching Royce Gracie win the first few UFC tournaments, Chris had the itch to learn Jiu-Jitsu.
Unfortunately at the time, Mississippi had very few options for places to learn. After searching hard, he managed to find a local Judo black belt named Randall Powell, who also held a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. After spending a couple years training, Chris found out that Mr. Powell was going to bring in Rob Kahn, Royce Gracie’s first black belt, for a seminar. At the end of the seminar, Professor Kahn promoted Chris to his blue belt.
Professor Kahn would eventually send one of his own black belts, Travis Neagle to oversee the BJJ program and Chris continued to earn rank under Professor Neagle. In 2009, Chris and Beth took a break from BJJ to become parents. Their six year old son Clayton now participates avidly in class at Vector Jiu-Jitsu and their four year old daughter Sophia will begin training soon. During this time, Beth would describe the condition of the high school in which she teaches to Chris and they would discuss how great it would be to one day reach out to troubled kids though Jiu-Jitsu. Upon returning to training after their parental hiatus, they found that a political split within the academy was taking place. Chris recalls “I felt like the son of divorcing parents, each trying to pull us in a different direction.” The couple made the decision to avoid the drama altogether by taking neither side, and instead pursuing their dream of opening their own academy to help impoverished kids. After talking it over with their instructor, they received his blessings and Vector Jiu-Jitsu was born.
At first, the pair attempted to pitch the idea to the Boys and Girls Club. With unsuccessful results, they decided to go directly to the high school where Beth teaches. They were approved for an after school program and set up shop in the school’s weight room. Beth explained “Being on the high school grounds has been such a blessing because the kids all have transportation issues. It is much easier for them to do an activity that is right there at the school.” Shortly after the program started, they were contacted by Kris Shaw, the president of Jiu-Jitsu Legends Magazine.
Kris was inspired by their story and referred them to a black belt who would likely be interested in overseeing the program. Joe Savoian, a black belt under UFC and ADCC veteran Ricco Rodriguez eagerly contacted Chris and Beth and started overseeing the program immediately. Many kids quickly started taking interest in the wacky new activity what was going on in the gym after school. Watching people get thrown over their heads onto mats, aggressively fighting for position, trying to land submission holds on each other and then giving a fist bump and laughing together afterwards causes a spark of excitement that all BJJ practitioners were initially lured in by.
Beth described the students, “Just like many people who learn Jiu-Jitsu, our kids are a bit of the misfit crowd. They aren’t the kids that are signing up for football or basketball. They are the ones that may have difficulty finding an identity through other programs that are available. Especially in a school that has such limited extracurricular programs as it is. In the time of their life that they are in, it is such a crucial point to find an identity. Our students not only find an identity, they find a family, which is so important because many come from single parent households who struggle to make ends meet. We have students who go through regular periods of being homeless. We have one student who has been homeless more than he’s had a home since we’ve known him. Unfortunately, we have lost many students due to them moving away, which for many of them happens every few months. Many of our students have worries and stresses that most people don’t have to consider. Things like where will I be going home to? What will I have to eat? Things they shouldn’t have to worry about.”
For the BJJ community, the many benefits that Jiu-Jitsu offers is common knowledge. Staying fit, a therapeutic mental escape and the confidence that comes with learning an effective self-defense system are all great reasons to train. Chris and Beth credit these things for the success of their program. “With all the gang activity around here, the kids have learned to just accept getting jumped on the way home as a part of life. So much so that they talk about it as casually as they would talk about what they had for lunch today. Having the confidence they have gained through Jiu-Jitsu has changed them. It has changed the way they walk, the way they talk and they don’t get jumped as much because of it.”
Chris agrees and adds, “The confidence level of students is the first change you notice. Our poster student was an 18 year old sophomore when we first met him. He wasn’t a bad kid, but he’d sleep through his academic classes and had no motivation to study. He didn’t care. He started to come train and after a couple weeks, he wanted to enter a competition that some of the more dedicated students were going to. I felt he hadn’t put the training time in to compete but I let him try it anyways. He got his butt handed to him.” Chris says with a chuckle “But after that, he became completely dedicated. With time his attitude made a complete 180. He started having Beth help him with his school work before every training session. And we are very proud to say that he recently graduated high school, being the first male in his entire family to do so. Shortly after, he also became the first male in his family tree to go to college. He is now a blue belt and a mentor to the younger kids at our academy.”
Beth went on to tell another success story, “We recently had a kid start who transferred to my math class from an alternative school with infractions for fighting and marijuana possession. You could tell he’s just one of those confused kids trying to make a name for himself. He’s a little awkward and catches a lot of flak from the other kids. I approached him almost immediately and invited him to come try our Jiu-Jitsu class after school.” Chris and Beth laugh as they admit that he was definitely a work in progress. In fact, he almost got kicked out of class by Chris a few times. “But we could see his heart and his mom was adamant about him training. After a long road, he has straightened out and stopped associating with a bad crowd. He has become very close to the other students in class. If it wasn’t for the program, he would have had a very different group of friends.”
Chris continued, “Another student of ours transferred here from a better school system and after having a very hard time adjusting, began considering suicide. He began training with us, found a family and is doing much better now. He also just earned his blue belt the other day. We have so many success stories, it would take all day to tell them all, but the point is, Vector Jiu-Jitsu has a huge impact on the lives of these kids who have nothing else.”
Thus far, Vector Jiu-Jitsu has been a safe haven for all of their 60+ students. But as anyone could assume, there are obstacles. “ Right now we can only service the kids in one high school in South Jackson. There are four other high schools in South Jackson alone. And the entire city is hurting. Parts of North and West Jackson are just as bad as South Jackson is. We desperately want to expand and offer this program to the entire city. There are so many great kids here who are at such a high risk because of the environment they are in, coupled with the lack of anything to do after school.” Beth explains. “We pay for a lot of things out of pocket for these kids. We pay for their GED tests, school supplies, books, driver’s license tests and sometimes even clothes.” Chris adds “What we do is not just teaching a class for a couple hours. It’s a 24/7 job. Our students need our help outside of class constantly. I’m not complaining by any stretch of the imagination, I love these kids, but we could really use a lot of help.”
Beth continues “The great news is that our program is growing through the roof and we are outgrowing the space the high school is letting us use. It is our dream to have our own place where we have %100 control. Half of the building could be a matted training area and half could be a computer lab staffed with a couple tutors and career counselors. Half the kids could train while the other half takes advantage of the education center. It would also be great if the kids could get transportation after school. Most of our kids walk home after class, and as I explained before, it is very dangerous. A 15-year-old girl was shot and killed on the school sidewalk recently while we were teaching class. She was the unintended target of a gang shooting. Had our students not been in class, it could have easily been one of them. Having a shuttle van like the Boys and Girls Club has to get them home safely would be a huge help. But obviously all of this will require major funding.”
Many of us would genuinely like to do our part and help others. We see those commercials with suffering kids, animals and veterans and feel the desire to help. But with so many large charity organizations out there, we can’t help but get that creeping thought in the back of our heads, “I wonder how much of my contribution would actually be going directly to those in need?”. This is one of those rare opportunities where you can be absolutely sure that every penny goes directly to the kids. The future definitely looks bright for Vector Jiu-Jitsu, and if you spend five minutes talking with Chris and Beth, you can feel the passion they have for what they do. They have no plans of settling for anything less than the very best program they can offer the inner city kids of Jackson. And thanks to them, South Jackson’s youth have hope where there would otherwise be none.
For anyone interested in donating to Vector Jiu-Jitsu, you can do so by clicking here.
Also, please check out the Vector Jiu-Jitsu mini-documentary by clicking here.
Written by Ryan Ford – Grappling Central – 7/3/2015