Standing in the sweaty chaos of a San Clemente gym, Finish Strong mixed martial arts coach and fighter Joe Calavitta pointed at the expanse of plate glass in front of him as his fellow coaches trained about 25 children.
"The kids' program started with this window right here," he said. “The neighborhood kids just started watching, and everything just fell together. We’re giving these kids world-class, top-notch training.”
Boasting coaches whose experience ranges from decades of boxing to training with the U.S. Olympic wrestling team, Finish Strong has begun working with neighborhood kids three nights a week as part of its nascent nonprofit efforts.
Located on Los Molinos, the Finish Strong mixed martial arts gym has been open for two years and plans to expand in November, nearly tripling in size when it takes over the neighboring Guillobel Brazilian jujitsu gym, which is moving to El Camino Real.
Finish Strong has been involved in a number of grant programs, including one organized by Mission Hospital to fight childhood obesity. Some of the youths from that program
Calavitta said Finish Strong’s nonprofit efforts got a boost when he met San Clemente resident and community organizer Rose Velasquez at Hapa Jay’s restaurant. Velasquez works for Orange County Human Relations and has been pushing for people in her Las Palmas neighborhood to get involved in the community through neighborhood meetings and youth groups.
Enter Berta Wynne, who lives in the Mendocinos low-income apartment complex in Talega. Wynne volunteered with Mission Hospital to bring her three children and about 10 others from the apartments to train at Finish Strong. They started coming in July.
Luis Romero, 13, , said he’s glad to have access to the gym.
“I’m learning wrestling, jujitsu and boxing, but I think boxing is the best,” he said. “It’s fun and it’s pretty chill, and it’s good because you stay off the streets and don’t do bad stuff.”
Rafael Gomez, who was training alongside Romero last Friday, said, “We’re learning skills that you use to defend yourself. Jujitsu and boxing are the best.”
Calavitta said athletic training is used as the proverbial carrot to make sure the students stay on top of their academic game: A nearby space is being set aside for tutoring, and coaches demand to see grades and report cards at regular intervals.
“We tell them, ‘We’re doing this for free, so you have to hold up your end of the bargain,’ ” he said.