For jiu jitsu brown belt Rome Za, 2014 was a year of big decisions. The owner of a successful gym in Brooklyn, New York Rome left one of the busiest cities on the planet and moved to the idyllic Republic of Costa Rica, where he settled with his wife and kids.
Although used to the mean streets of NYC, the conditions Rome Za found in some of Costa Rica’s neighbourhoods were much tougher than he had foreseen. In a country famous for its beautiful landscape, outside the tourist hotspots were villages running in abject poverty with shacks for homes built with random pieces wood, tarp, and holes filled rusty metal roofs. Running water in Costa Rica is a privilege not a right, adding to injury the country has high numbers of families decimated by drug addiction and several cases of child abuse.
Seeing the day to day struggle of so many kids in his area led Rome to try and help the only way he knew how, trough jiu jitsu. Given that so many of these children lacked an extracurricular activity that took them off the dangerous streets of Tamarindo, and away from their chaotic surroundings Za decided to open a jiu jitsu academy called Hero BJJ Academy which started in 2016.
Opening a gym in an impoverished location meant there was no way the local kids could possibly afford uniforms, tuition, and all other expenses that come with practicing this martial art. For this reason Rome and wife Lola started a nonprofit organization and self funded the project the whole first year to keep the doors open and kids training.
Fully loaded with good spirits and willingness to work hard Rome’s kids program took off quickly, and not long after opening doors the success of the kids classes meant the Za’s had to tear down a few walls and expand the mat. Much of this positive feedback came down not only to the level of instruction but also to the emotional support brought forward by the coaches who deal with large numbers of troubled youths, a work heavily backed by assistant instructor Jerad Portner. While helping raise the self esteem of sexually, physically and mentally abused children, Heroes also provide financial support to a few families, particularly those who have substance abusing family members in which they are financially dependent on.
The community of Tamarindo has embraced the project and with their help group continued to grow, having reached full capacity: 70 children (60 of those on full scholarship [clothing + membership]) and about 20 adults. All paying members fees are fully invested back on to the nonprofit fund of the gym.
The work being done has had many success stories already with had half a dozen domestic abuse situations being stopped by young female students, potentially saving their lives or those of their mothers in the process. Now, after 1.5 years of hard work the team is ready to face local competition by bringing a squad to the BJJ Kids Costa Rica Pro League, a series of 4 tournaments that will take place in 2018, held in Costa Rica’s capital San Jose.
The goal is to keep the competition element in these kids’ lives, and possibly fly the kids to international tournaments in the future. With the help of Rome Za and assistant instructors Jerad Portner, Mike Chulak, Jason Shireman and Ron Jarman we are adamant it can be done.
Buena suerte niños!
Hero’s Academy Website: bjjincostarica.com
Hero’s Academy Message:
Donations Page: bjjincostarica.com/donate/