Meet The Guy Hustling To Get A Grass Roots BJJ Project In The Bronx

Fernando Reals is a BJJ brown belt and professional educator, and he’s the guy hustling to provide a grass roots jiu-jitsu project in the Bronx. Inspired by social projects he’d encountered first-hand while visiting Rio de Janeiro, Fernando – who trains with Vitor ‘Shaolin’ Ribeiro in New York – decided to use the power of jiu-jitsu to engage with local at-risk youth. 

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‘ASCEND’ Jiu-Jitsu – Arte Suave Community Enrichment & Network Development Jiu-Jitsu Social Project

Jiu-jitsu is incredible, it really changes lives. It provides an opportunity for so many different kinds of personal growth and development

FloGrappling: Tell us how you first got the idea to start teaching jiu-jitsu to local youth.

Fernando Reals: I’ve been an educator in various NYC public schools for over a decade now. I got my start teaching incarcerated kids in NY’s notorious Rikers Island jail schools, and then made my way to various public schools in some of the poorest sections of The Bronx, where I live, in the hopes of guiding kids to avoid the grimy fate of the criminal justice system.  

Fernando Reals teaching at ASCEND in the Bronx

At one school in the South Bronx I decided to teach no-gi grappling to a ragtag bunch of high school wrestlers in their off season when I was just a blue belt. It’s really a miracle nobody got injured but I think I did it because I was becoming addicted to grappling and figured the more the merrier. 

When I went to work at my second South Bronx high school I was hired as a history teacher and advisor to a motley crew of kids. One kid in particular got pointed out to me as a kid who would need a lot of guidance because he spent most days in the principal’s office for fighting or driving some teacher up the wall. He kept bugging me and bugging me to teach him and his peers this arm-twisting stuff. That allowed me to connect with kids while other educators often kept them at an arm’s distance. 

So in the fall of 2011, with a purple belt around my waist and decrepit gymnastics mats, I began a BJJ social project in the South Bronx. We didn’t even have a steady room to meet up in or donated kimonos or anything, but we had a ton of kids who wanted to learn for all sorts of reasons. I figured that I could use jiu-jitsu to build good relationships with tough kids and maybe leverage those relationships to help guide them towards graduation, better physical and mental health, a delicate balance between humility and self-confidence and a real rooted connectedness to a community. 

FG: What did you think jiu-jitsu could offer them that other activities couldn’t?

FR: Jiu-jitsu is incredible, it really changes lives. It provides an opportunity for so many different kinds of personal growth and development. In my experience teaching jiu-jitsu in public schools, it has attracted an interesting cross-section of knuckleheads and nerds - all sorts of kids from those who are expected to be tough, to those who would like to toughen up, have joined my social project - and it humanizes and tempers all of them and all of the volunteers that come through and pitch in. 

In this way I believe jiu-jitsu as a martial art and fast-growing sport is different from other activities; it helps individuals grow as individuals, but it does so with a particular emphasis on the collective growth of everyone in the community – whether that is your academy or region of the world.

We get used kimonos donated by folks regularly. We even once got an incredible grant from the UFC to buy mats and fitness equipment and some of our kids got to meet Ronda Rousey and Frankie Edgar

FG: What challenges did you face getting the project started, and how did you overcome those?

FR: Getting the project started wasn’t terribly challenging, especially because there was a lot of passion in the beginning. Once I gained the trust of the school administrators and got the green light to start the program, kids joined right away and parents were all the happier for it. 

With the help of training partners, the extended jiu-jitsu community that is connected via social media, and the tremendous support from the good folks at Bronx Jiu-Jitsu and Vitor Shaolin’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu the word spread and we get used kimonos donated by folks regularly. We get discounts on kimonos from our good friend at Ronin Brand, we’ve gotten rash guards and brand new kimonos from VHTS from time to time. We even once got an incredible grant from the UFC to buy mats and fitness equipment and some of our kids got to meet Ronda Rousey and Frankie Edgar. 

I think the real challenge is in sustaining the work through the ebb and flow of student interest, or staying in the school building for long hours after the dismissal bell has rung. I sacrifice my time with family, friends, or on the mats with my own professors and training partners because I really believe this is important and I’m giving kids the kind of opportunity I would’ve loved at their age. I’ve only been able to overcome that  with the love and support of my family and the encouragement that comes from those whose lives I’ve touched through jiu-jitsu. 

[We hope to] eventually bring youth from the Bronx to Brazil and vice versa

FG: Tell us about your time in Brazil; you’ve been there twice now to visit social projects. What were your experiences like, and how did they influence your work back in the Bronx?

FR: Traveling to Rio de Janeiro has been amazing for me and my family, and the ripple effects are felt by the folks at Bronx Jiu-Jitsu where we train as well as at the social project that we run. We were inspired to learn more about jiu-itsu in the cradle of the sport by the wonderful pictures and videos being posted by Connection Rio and BJJ Hacks over the years, so I applied for a grant from the Fund for Teachers and also ran a crowdfunding campaign to be able to bring the whole family along to be able to soak it all in over the course of a NY summer break - Rio’s winter. 

We loved it so much we returned the following year, with training partners and friends in tow, and hope to continue the tradition – eventually bringing youth from the Bronx to Brazil and vice versa. 

Fernando and wife Justine (far right) with friend Osiris (left) and Terere gym manager Nico Ball (black gi)

Man, I don’t know if we are just lucky or what but all of our experiences overall were positive in Rio. We trained in a variety of places over our two visits and felt welcomed with open arms wherever we went. I feel privileged to have trained at so many amazing academies for a small chunk of time and have met so many highly-regarded professors and wonderful training partners. I’ve been to De La Riva’s, Fernando Terere’s, Rico Vieira’s, and Felipe Costa’s schools for weeks of training. There I learned jiu-jitsu for myself, but I was also learning about jiu-jitsu pedagogy – how to teach – so that I may become a better instructor. 

I also paid particular attention to and visited various social projects, and was so enriched by that experience. Whether it is Perninha’s beautiful work playing the role of an uncle to a ton of great kids through jiu-jitsu and surfing out in Barra, or seeing the net effect of Rico Vieira’s commitment to the favela Cantagalo through the kids and adults who have grown up in that environment and are now ever the better for it in Copacabana or half-way around the globe, or soaking in the harrowing motorcycle ride up the Ladeira dos Tabajares with Helvecio Penna to where he serves kids who might otherwise not afford jiu-jitsu, or to the very special academy Fernando Terere has set up that is in and of itself a social project where the tuition-paying local, the visiting gringo, and the members of the social project who aren’t expected to pay with anything other than their sweat and determination train together on one mat – twice a day, five days a week. 

FG: What are your plans for the future, and what kind of effect do you hope jiu-jitsu will have on the youngsters that you currently have training with you?

FR: I hope to find a way to expand access to jiu-jitsu in more public schools so that more kids have the opportunity to have their lives changed and so they can ascend whatever obstacles stand in their way and work towards a better life. I would definitely love to see jiu-jitsu become a vehicle for some of the young people I work with to be happy, healthy, and financially stable in the future; it would make me very happy if sometime in the near future some of the young adults who got their start with me became paid purple belt instructors of their own projects, or some extension of the one I started. 

I’d like to see the kids who train with me become good citizens and community members that never forget where they came from and always find a way to contribute positively to the betterment of their communities.

Enjoy kid's jiu-jitsu? Then you'll love the 2016 Kids Pans! Watch it live this weekend or on replay ONLY on FloGrappling

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