How Jiu Jitsu Is Rescuing Youths From Crime & Drugs

Posted: Oct 01 2014

Leoes de Juda - Final - Phuong Huynh - Joao Thiago Samir

Leões de Judá was founded in April 2009 by black belts, Thiago Dias and Fernando Halfeld, of the Baptist Church, Resplendent Morning Star. The program based in Juiz de Fora, Brazil was created in an effort to rescue at-risk youths from crime and drugs. The program uses jiu-jitsu as an agency for raising self-esteem, teaching discipline, ethics, respect, camaraderie, and to prepare them for the adversities they would face in life. Athletic development is the diversion, but the inevitable and invaluable by-product is character development. The requirements to be part of the program are enrollment in school, good grades, good behavior inside and outside the sport, and a commitment to not be involved in any illegal activities. One does not even have to be religious to be a part of it. It is run solely on volunteers and donations (no government assistance) and the program has since grown to include youths outside of the favelas.

“The classes are free. There are no charges at all. Everything that we have [and] everything that we have built has been through help from friends, members of the church, and others from outside.” – Professor Fernando, co-founder/instructor.

Caio’s involvement is more than just sponsorship—he is the program’s “Godfather,” meaning they are under his guiding wing as if they were his own. The program is a branch of the growing CTA family and competes under the collective team name. Caio became involved not only because the program director, Thiago, is a good friend, but also because he continually seeks opportunities to help people through jiu-jitsu, the art that changed his life.

Currently there are approximately 30 students enrolled and training. A promising and dedicated student from the program is 16-year-old, blue belt,João Paulo Rodrigues. João was introduced to jiu-jitsu through a friend when he was pursuing other sports such as futbol and swimming, but jiu-jitsu prevailed in owning his interest and it has since become a major part of his life. He was training just as a recreational activity, but his passion grew with his progress and has led him to major prestigious tournaments beyond his hometown. At such a young age, he has already conquered the Americas, having brought home gold in his division and bronze in absolute at Pan-Ams. His dreams do not stop there, as he aspires to be World Champion in his weight class and in absolute in every belt rank that he can. Aside from shiny medals, what João has also gained through jiu-jitsu is a full paid scholarship to a private high school. The accomplished young student stays humble, nevertheless.

“It took a lot of hard work [and] lots of training. It was very surprising for me to have gone as far as I did.” – João, student.

João has become an example of the program’s success with other youths aspiring to follow in his footsteps. His teammate, Jonathan, is inspired by João and has gained confidence he did not have before. With the support of his team, he has competed in various tournaments.

“At first it was very difficult because I was very anxious. Now I have become calmer. Because before I was afraid to fight and now I don’t have any more fear.” – Jonathan, student.

The project has been so successful that there is now a waiting list to join, although the space has been reduced. Caio’s current goal for the program is to help Thiago find bigger space so they can take on more students. Along with the program’s growth and students’ success, one cannot help but feel a sense of pride and familial bond for what it has become.

Leoes de Juda - Final - Phuong Huynh - LdJ at Pans

“For Pan Ams 2014, my association brought Thiago and João to come learn and develop more technique, to compete, and to have a very unique experience of traveling outside of their country. João was able to win his weight class and place 3rd in absolute as a juvenile blue belt. To be able to see the smile of a kid, that 2 years ago was not very happy in life, was very rewarding to me. Giving them an opportunity is giving them hope in life—hope so they can work hard to change their destiny. When they got back to Brazil, they were able to share all these experiences with their friends, spreading our martial art to give more people hope and change lives. I am very fortunate to be able to be a part of this project and very glad the results have been so positive.”– Professor Caio, Godfather.

“It is gratifying to see the students’ progress. I also try to follow-up often with them outside of training… their progress as much as their discipline, relationship with parents, and progress in school.”– Professor Fernando, co-founder/instructor.

“I have a 12 year long career as an athlete and 5 as an instructor. Now when you see a student of yours have success on the mats you look at them not only as good students, but also as your children. It’s very gratifying.”– Professor Thiago, co-founder/program director.


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