Stories from the Mat – “Before Level Ground, I Struggled with Being Hungry”

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Program Assistants had the opportunity to travel to New York and represent Level Ground at the world-famous Marcelo Garcia Academy

Eight months ago, I became convinced that in order to create deeper impact, Level Ground must develop a Youth Employment program.  Financial constraints and a lack of professional development opportunities were not just hindering our students’ growth, but their ability to function on a day-to-day basis.  One young man had a criminal record prohibiting him from obtaining employment.  Another had turned to the streets in search of more lucrative opportunities after his job search proved in vain.  Furthermore, after noticing that several youth had difficulty in maintaining a job for more than a couple of months, I realized that certain students would require more intensive case-management to succeed in the workplace. We would need to cultivate an employment model that blended rigor and challenge with patience and understanding…and the Martial Arts Instructor-Student relationship was a natural way to create this culture.

“I used to struggle with finding food, being hungry.

The haze of urban poverty is very real.

But thanks to Level Ground, I’ve found an income.

I’ve found a leader in myself.

I’ve found a second chance.” – J., age 16

FAST FORWARD – Level Ground’s “Assistantship” (Employment & Internship) Program now serves 6 students. One court-involved youth has maintained employment with us for over 7 months.  Another has left the streets completely.  Others have reported that they would have no access to leadership and skill-building opportunities were it not for Level Ground.  Of this cohort, we provide four students with part-time wages.  Our goal is to offer an additional 2 paying jobs in the next 6 months.

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Program Assistants host a table at the City Awake Expo

We are not running the run-of-the-mill youth employment program, but aim to create a rigorous experience that grooms even the most disconnected youth for professional success.  On Monday evenings, students engage in a 2-hour long “Professional Bootcamp” that is designed and facilitated by our older students.  These sessions take place at Impact Hub located in the Financial District of Boston, ensuring that students learn how to operate in a professional environment.  Here, we reflect on the previous week – our successes and challenges – and create ambitious goals moving forward. A high level of accountability is the norm.

Over the course of the week, our ‘youth staff’ perform a variety of functions, including assisting in MMA instruction to new students, public speaking at community events, and managing ‘special projects’ including the design of our communication materials and media.

“I am excited to work with Level Ground because it teaches me about discipline and to work with other people, and to learn many different skills that I can apply in my life.” –JN., age 16 

We are confident that our Assistantship Program will prove life changing for our kids, especially when looking at 3 Key Points of Impact that employment provides for youth:

1. Employment ensures that our students basic needs are met

40% of Latino and 35% of Black youth in Boston live in poverty in Boston (The Boston Foundation.)  Employment is not only crucial for building soft skills or instilling values such as responsibility or work ethic, but is often essential for providing basic necessities.  If food and clothing are lacking, it stifles our students’ growth in all aspects of life.

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Brainstorming session at Impact Hub where students identified professional norms to hold themselves accountable

 2. Employment increases the likelihood that our students will obtain a college degree

Students that have poor grades and low education goals (representing the majority of our population) are 3 times more likely to acquire a college degree if they work for 14 hours per week than teens that do not. (The Pennsylvania State University)

 3. Employment increases future salaries

Teens that work during high school and college receive salaries 16% higher than those that do not. (The Boston Globe).

Yet there lies a disconnect between the need for youth jobs and the opportunity that exists for our students. In the summer of 2013, for instance, half of white male teens had jobs in comparison to 9% of Black males.

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Students breakout into teams to discuss project goals

True to our mission, we refuse to allow this opportunity gap to remain. Our students have an incredible capacity to do great things, and we are determined to a) help them see themselves this way, b) help them determine their personal and professional goals, c) help them cultivate transferable skill sets to leverage in the pursuit of these goals.  Help US achieve this mission.


Please join us in providing permanent jobs for our current youth staff, as well as providing this opportunity to 2 more youth in 2015! 

Create a LEVEL GROUND for Boston.  Give today.

$50 provides one professional development workshop.

$120 provides one youth with employment for one week.

$480 provides one youth with employment for one month.

$6,000 provides one youth with employment for an entire year.

Stories from the Mat – The Power of Genuine Relationships as a Vehicle for Social Change


More and more organizations are using sports as a vehicle for social change.  This is incredible and we applaud this rising trend, but, you may wonder, what makes Level Ground so unique?
While we differentiate ourselves in large part through our holistic model by providing mentorship, academic advancement, and youth employment to the students we serve, it is the culture that really serves as the ‘magic’ of Level Ground.

While many organizations seek to serve as many youth as possible (let’s be real…in large part to impress funders), we delve deep and create raw, authentic, and truly lasting relationships with our students.  We are unapologetic in our approach: in order to best serve the unique individuals they are, we must get to know them and appreciate them individually.  By doing so, we earn the RIGHT to challenge them beyond their limits, both on and off that mat.  We can then help them create a plan for success specifically tailored to their unique story, personality, and dreams.  In doing so, we create a culture where each individual is cherished…no censors, no filters, no socially-constructed parameters that reduce human beings to mere metrics and data.

This takes time and energy, and may mean that we never serve 1000 kids annually.  However, what we yearn for…and what we’re proving…is that this approach results in change of the most genuine, beautiful, and sustainable in nature.

Don’t take my word for it though – check out a speech presented by one of our students to her college class a couple of weeks ago.  In it she describes the relationship between her and myself, and the tremendous impact it has had on her.  I can say with confidence that this is the story of all of our students in relation to all of our amazing, passionate instructors and volunteers.  I will also add that they have impacted and changed our lives just as deeply.  Thank you, Melanie, for changing mine.