As Jeffrey Whittingham watched Philadelphia’s gun violence rates soar last year, he empathized with its impact on youth and wanted to step in.
“When you look at the numbers, it kind of hurts your heart,” Whittingham said. “They’re affected by it, you look at the community, they’re affected by it.”
Whittingham, a 2014 criminal justice alumnus and former offensive lineman for Temple University’s football team, launched Growth, Love, Success, a weekly martial arts program for Philadelphia youth on Jan. 13. The program aims to empower young people and involve them in their community by teaching them jiujitsu, a Japanese form of unarmed martial arts.
Whittingham, a success coach at Commonwealth Charter Academy in West Philadelphia, wanted to help young people stay away from violence by offering a safe space for them to build self-defense skills and train as a team, he said.
“I’m just trying to bring hope,” Whittingham said. “When we have hope and people start to believe in themselves, I think that we can overcome what’s going on out here in the real world.”
The program takes place at Gracie Academy on Bainbridge Street near 13th every Wednesday from 4:30 p.m until 5:30 p.m.
Whittingham acquired the space through a collaboration with the owners of Gracie Academy, a jiujitsu and judu gym. The gym allows the program’s returning students to train at its other programs for free as an incentive to stay engaged and continue coming to them, Whittingham said.
“I wanted to bring something entertaining and intriguing to the youth,” Whittingham said. “It gives them something that motivates them to do better in life and be well and something to help give them the tools to be sharper and confident.”
About 20 prospective students ages 11 to 18 and their guardians attended a meet and greet at the program’s martial arts studio on Jan. 13, and now Whittingham and program instructors train 15 middle and high school students during the weekly sessions.
“Once they start having fun with it, I think they’d really start to enjoy life and escape the ruckus that’s going on outside,” he added.
Whittingham, who is from Atlantic City, New Jersey, said that hearing about gun violence while growing up in an urban area makes him passionate about connecting with youth in his program today.
“I am relatable, I was actually one of them,” he said. “I can really break down and tell them like, I’ve been there, I’ve done it, this is how I did it.”
More than 2,240 people in Philadelphia have been victims of gun violence since Jan. 1, 2020, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. There were 1,849 nonfatal and 405 fatal shooting victims last year, with more than 295 of all victims 18 or younger, according to the city controller’s office.
Nearly 100 young people were shot in Philadelphia through August 2020, a 69 percent increase from 2019, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Aug. 6, 2020.
Whittingham originally wanted to start Growth, Love, Success classes in November 2020, but he waited until after the holidays to ensure students and staff could self-isolate after family gatherings, he said.
To comply with the city’s COVID-19 guidelines for gyms and exercise classes, which limit capacities and require social distancing, students are spread out in the studio, wear masks and take their temperature before entering, and the staff clean the studio’s mats in between sessions.
Brijae Maxwell’s 11-year-old daughter joined the program on Jan. 20, and, after watching her daughter participate in the class, Maxwell said she enjoyed how well Whittingham and the program’s instructors engaged with the students.
“These leaders truly care about the community,” Maxwell said. “They truly care about how the children in the community and the families in the community are impacted by what’s going on with the pandemic, by what’s going on with gun violence, just things to give children a real outlet and something to do.”
Maxwell, 31, who lives on Washington Avenue near Broad Street, heard about the program through Whittingham’s story on 6ABC and immediately wanted to get her daughter, who is already a yellow belt in karate, involved in the program.
“I don’t believe that the jiujitsu program is solely about martial arts or self-defense, or just combating gun violence,” she said. “It’s to show that even throughout a health crisis, there is community there is a safe space for you to go.”
While the classes may be tiring, they offer something new and a way to learn about building consistency and endurance at a young age, Maxwell said.
Carl Benbow, a teacher at St. Katharine Drexel in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, signed his 15 year-old godson up for the program hoping to expose him to new experiences and keep him active during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think this program elevates his self-esteem and makes him confident about himself so he can be a part of something,” Benbow said.
Whittingham originally discovered jiujitsu when a friend introduced him to it in 2019. The idea for Growth, Love, Success then grew from his endeavor starting “25 Days of Random Acts of Kindness,” a challenge where he did one random act of kindness for 25 days leading up to Christmas, after experiencing a serious head injury at the Tap Out Tournament, a jiujitsu tournament to raise money for cancer treatment.
“I was just doing random acts of kindness just to show my gratitude for being here and being in the position to do so,” Whittingham said.
With jiujitsu, Whittingham loved the thrill and peace it brought him, and wanted to share it with youth, along with teaching the discipline he learned as a football Temple’s football field with his students.
“Playing football, especially at a high level, you build a lot of character, you learn a lot of different situations that prepare you for the outside world,” he said. “I’m transitioning all that I learned from football into jiujitsu.”
Amber Connally, Whittingham’s girlfriend who manages public relations for Growth, Love, Success, said she thinks the program will have an impact on the students.
“He genuinely wants to see change in his community, and in the world, and wants to have an impact on people’s lives,” she said. “A positive impact at that one.”
While Whittingham and his staff don’t have any set plans for the students to compete in jiujitsu in the near future, Whittingham is open to setting up competitions as students’ skills improve through the program. He hopes to eventually receive donations to expand Growth, Love, Success to college students in the future, he said.
“It takes a team, so I hope to continue to build a team,” he added.