Ray Freeman, the founder of One Community Jiu-Jitsu Club, spoke to us about his mission to offer free BJJ to Kansas City residents.
Ray Freeman noticed a problem in his community and decided to take action.
About three years ago, Freeman – a lifelong resident of Kansas City, Kansas, and now a purple belt in BJJ – found himself fed up with the city’s growing gun violence problem, saddened by the seemingly endless news of shootings that took the lives of far too many Kansas Citians.
He also noticed that, despite a number of BJJ gyms flourishing across the metropolitan area, none could be found in Kansas City’s Wyandotte County, the ethnically diverse urban core of the city.
Motivated by the belief that jiu-jitsu can shape lives for the better, Freeman decided to start a 501(c)(3) charitable organization to offer free jiu-jitsu lessons to the area’s residents.
Freeman recently spoke to Grappling Insider about his efforts to bring jiu-jitsu to Wyandotte County and his ongoing work as the founder of One Community Jiu-Jitsu Club.
Freeman grew up in Kansas City, bouncing from home to home in the foster care system. That turbulent upbringing has been a constant reminder of why he wants to introduce BJJ to some of the city’s most vulnerable youths:
“I grew up in foster care in Wyandotte County and that has been a major push for me because when foster care, you don’t have any stability. So you’re looking for that guidance always and I didn’t find that until I discovered jiu-jitsu as an adult.”
Freeman explains that while one part of the city is known as a thriving metropolitan area with top tourist attractions, Wyandotte County is all too often overlooked:
“When you think of Kansas City you think of the Chiefs, you think of the Royals, you think of Power and Light District, but that’s all on the Kansas City, Missouri side. In Kansas City, Kansas we get all of the setbacks from it being a major city – the major crimes. We just had three shootings within 30 minutes this past weekend that made some headlines, but it’s kind of nonsense that we don’t have a lot of sense of community.”
In 2020, Freeman was a blue belt in jiu-jitsu and recognized a void of BJJ academies in Wyandotte County. Due to the area’s low-income base, traditional profit-generating gyms have avoided the neighborhood:
“It was the realization one day when I realized that there were gyms popping up all over Kansas City but none in Wyandotte County. And that was three years ago, and here I am today still, there’s been probably three gyms that have opened up [elsewhere]… It’s not a good place to open up a gym. Jiu-jitsu is 150 dollars a month in the KC metro. But it’s the culture that these people don’t get access to that I think is a disservice.”
Recognizing his neighborhood as a jiu-jitsu desert, Freeman decided to take the most direct action he could: start his own academy and offer free BJJ lessons in Wyandotte County.
Things haven’t been all easygoing, he says. But the same lessons he’s learned on the mats have helped him stay the course over the past three years:
“It has not been easy running this thing. We’ve had some issues with funding. We’ve had issues initially with students. But through resilience and keeping at it we’ve had success. And honestly, I learned that in jiu-jitsu…
“Wyandotte County, they need this to build that community. And if no one else is gonna do it, then here I am. I’m gonna do it.”
Despite experiencing the challenges that any new charitable organization is likely to face, Freeman says he feels a true sense of pride and gratification in passing on BJJ to some of his city’s most overlooked residents:
“We’re struggling on funding so I definitely don’t get paid doing this, but I tell you Ben, I get paid in smiles. When they show up every day they’re ready, they’re pumped, ready to go. And then when they leave they’re, ‘Thank you Mr. Freeman, high-fiving, I’ll see you guys tomorrow.’ Yes! I will see you tomorrow, and I’ll keep seeing you tomorrow for as long as I have to keep doing this.”
So far, One Community Jiu-Jitsu Club has survived on donations and the support of the local jiu-jitsu and MMA community, but the organization needs continued support to carry on its mission of providing free BJJ lessons to Kansas Citians.
“People can help out however you see fit. Of course, dollars are great. We definitely need funding, but if you provide a service, if you know how to run websites, or if you know marketing very well, or you know law… However you think you can help, please reach out and help.”