American Ninja Warrior, a family show, sparked the emergence of the Ninja Warrior as a sport for all ages. Local gyms have produced local competitions. From those competitions emerged tournaments and large-scale events. Athletes of all generations have found a place in the sport and the surrounding community, which prides itself on the solidarity and inclusion of all.
This requires special attention to the smallest members of society: the weak children who want to be ninjas. It is a responsibility that cannot be taken lightly. One group, the Neighborhood Ninja, approaches them head-on.
Neighborhood Ninja is a non-profit organization dedicated to making sports a safe space by acknowledging stark truths – children deal with injustice and trauma. With this acknowledgment, the questions come. How can we prevent it? How can we change their worlds? How can we help them heal?
Neighborhood Ninja (a federally recognized 501c3 tax-exempt nonprofit) was started in 2018 by Shaun Darling Hammond (Ninja Giving) and Sarahlyn Salisbury Jones. The organization is now run by a board of community members (including Ninja Warrior competitor Casey Rothschild, founder of Queer Ninjas Unite) and director Alex Katz, who joined in 2019.
Alex is a personal trainer with seven years of experience and has been a Ninja Warrior trainer for three years. She laughs when asked about her American Ninja Warrior appearance, saying that it’s only about “good” audience participation. She also has a background in Psychology, Mental Health, and Trauma. Living Ninja is the icing on the cake. Alex spoke to us about the organization’s current endeavours.
“We aim to increase access and diversity in the sport of ninjas,” Alex said. “We provide trauma-informed opportunities for children to build a growth mindset and resilience. We envision helping children build trust, community, communication, and compassion.”
To understand the work of Ninja Neighborhood, consider the weight of the words in this statement. What is “shock science”? It is a shift in mindset that changes how we relate to others.
Alex explained to us, “Trauma means that when you interact with other people, you look at them through this lens assuming that anyone might have experienced a trauma.” “We work specifically with low-income children, LGBTQ youth, and children in foster care. We have to assume that these children have experienced some kind of trauma in their lives. When we interact with these children, we want to make sure that we take in their experiences that they have lived.” in consedration “.
This level of sponsorship guides all neighboring Ninja programs. They have taken upon themselves the huge task of building trust in children on an individual level and providing safe spaces for growth. This work is done through ongoing sponsorship and extension programmes.
The Neighborhood Ninjas Scholarship Fund, one of the first programs created, was designed to give children access to Ninja Warrior gyms, regardless of their financial situation. This has expanded beyond gyms to scholarships for National Ninja League (NNL) and Ultimate Ninja Athlete Association (UNAA) competitions. Neighborhood Ninjas offered 50 scholarships between 2019 and 2021.
The importance of these opportunities goes beyond the chance for a child to make a name for themselves in sports. “It is a time where the community can come together and make those bonds. You never know when a growth mindset will kick in at an event of this magnitude,” Alex said of the sponsorship program.
“When NNL Worlds was in Hartford, we had a little girl with cystic fibrosis. Nagy Richardson was her hero. We gave her a scholarship and she hit the first hurdle. She was so upset. She was like, ‘I’ll never do a ninja again.’ All of those People were watching me. I embarrassed myself.
We had Nagy meet her and talk to her. He told her how he also fell on the first hurdle. He had this conversation with her and she completely changed her outlook. She said: Everyone falls. I will try again. I’m not done with a ninja. I will get stronger and try again next year. This moment was pivotal for her. ”
Since the beginning of the program, about 70 children have applied for scholarships for the gym or competition. Alex told us that most applicants were able to get a scholarship. But the work does not stop with the processing of papers. Neighborhood Ninjas do their best to ensure that these experiences are nothing but positive for the beneficiaries. They will check (as far as possible) the nearest gyms in the applicants area and try to match them with the right environment for them.
“Going back to that trauma-conscious piece, if we have an LGBTQ kid who wants a scholarship, and the gym they want to go to, there might be some bullying of other gay kids. We’re going to evaluate, is this right for the kid or not? In the end, that’s their decision.” .
The Neighborhood Ninja Scholarship Fund works tirelessly to place children in positive environments. Their mentoring program looks to provide them with the ability to navigate those environments with confidence and flexibility.
After an initial launch in 2020, the Neighborhood Ninjas mentorship program is currently accepting applications for its second season.
The first season included eight mentors and six mentors. These mentors include some familiar names from the TV show, including Perry Madison, Megan Bowdway and Jesse Graff. The trainees came from all over the country. Thanks to virtual meetings, the program has been able to launch safely through the depths of the pandemic.
“They just want to connect,” Alex said when asked what the interns were looking for from the experience. “We’re still kind of in the middle of a pandemic and they’re struggling with that connection because it looks different than it did before.
I think most kids struggle to feel fit. They struggle to feel like they have a role model they can aspire to. A lot of them just want guidance.”
Neighborhood Ninjas carefully matches mentors and trainees and provides everyone with the tools to make the most of a new relationship. “Once they apply, we interview and match them based on suitability, not necessarily location. We want to make sure they can cater to each other. I need help with this thing,” the intern says, or “I’m a cranky kid, can I? Getting a mentor like me?”
We do mentor training where they learn things like effective mentoring practices, and how to help trainees set goals. The trainees get their own training. We’ll do things about setting boundaries and healthy relationships, which is very important. We’ll do that with them even before we start because we want to make sure there are healthy borders on both sides.”
To be clear, the program is not just an opportunity to get a free Ninja Warrior trainer. The common denominator of the Ninja Warrior is ice breaking which leads to deeper action.
“Goal setting is really big that we focus on,” Alex said. “Take what they learn in the gym and apply it to other things in their lives. If there is a difficult obstacle, what do you learn from it? How do you break that obstacle line into little pieces? Same thing in life. How do you break down a goal into smaller, more manageable parts?” How do we add some growth mindset and resilience to that?”
For the second season of the mentorship program, couples will meet either virtual or in person, on a biweekly schedule.
“When they come together, it’s a combination of everything they’re working on. We make them focus on developing trust with their trainees. A lot of that helps them develop a sense of self. I think a lot of our trainees don’t know who they are outside of being a ninja.”
While the show’s first season is technically still ongoing (it will end in March), the results are already visible to the participants, including the mentors.
“They help a child grow and develop and that’s a great feeling for anyone. We started in January and we could see this transformation in their children (the interns) was really important.
Kids talk to us about how their confidence has improved. Confidence is really something that is hard to measure. It shows in ways like showing themselves there to try something new and scary. He appears to have a better sense of who they are. Not being afraid to show their identity to others because that is something their mentors penned.”
Ninja Zone has almost devised a wheel of care for the participants: putting them in gyms, teaching them confidence and goal setting, and finally, making sure they send children into a community equipped for their protection. Enter, Partners in Prevention, a new program that the Neighborhood Ninjas will make available to all interested gyms in early 2022.
“Darkness to Light is a leader in child sexual abuse prevention. I am now a Darkness to Light certified coordinator with the ability to train and accredit gyms to become partners in child sexual abuse prevention,” Alex tells us. While the training will be freely available to all gyms that have a mentor or trainee in the program, any gym or organization can receive training for a small amount.
“This is something we try to highlight in the community, outside of the gyms. The communities that our children might be a part of. One in 10 children has been sexually abused,” Alex stressed.
“We tell kids we care about their growth and safety, and we put them in gyms where we don’t enjoy what they are part of. We thought about how to better equip society. There is a lot of talk about ‘not our society’ or ‘not our gym.’ It’s easy to say. We are trying to get people to understand what flags are and to empower them to be active bystanders in their community.
1 in 10 means that a child in your class has been sexually assaulted, even if it wasn’t in your gym. How can you be better equipped to support them? This goes back to the shock science piece. The child as a whole person, not just an athlete.”
Neighborhood Ninja also puts it in virtual and in-person community days. Community Days introduced the sport of ninjas to new audiences and special groups, such as foster homes for foster children. Virtual events can focus on different topics, including bullying.
To say, “It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it,” sounds pretty cliched when referring to the work of the Neighborhood Ninjas. But that’s what’s happening here. American Ninja Warrior as a sport and community has drawn kids from all walks of life into its fold. The Neighborhood Ninjas is here to make sure the great space is accessible and safe for everyone.