Dustin Martin never expected he would become a role model. Not after once sitting in a room surrounded with guns in his Boise apartment waiting for the men he knew were coming to kill him.
Not after serving as a leader in what he describes as one of the most dangerous gangs in the country, the Black Gangster Disciples, in 2005.
Today, Martin, 31, of Kennewick, works with co-owner David Castillo, 19, of Kennewick, as a boxing coach and mentor at Born Again Soldiers Fighting Academy in Pasco.
The club began in 2007 when Martin and another church member started teaching self-defense classes at Word of Faith Center in Kennewick when an elementary-aged kid at the church complained of being picked on by bullies at school.
After their first session, the student brought another friend, and before long, there were 30 kids wanting to learn how to stand up to bullies.
Soon, they needed another space to train and one of the kids offered a garage in the back of his mom's hair salon in Pasco. That lasted for a while, until they grew to 50 members and needed more room. In 2009, they moved to 1207 S. 10th St. in Pasco.
At-risk kids get training, have safe place to go
At the academy, at-risk kids get boxing and mixed martial arts training and have a safe place to go. Martin and Castillo also teach self-respect, teamwork, tolerance, discipline and acceptance.
Practice begins with stretching, warm-up calisthenics or jogging, depending on the weather.
They pair up and work on grappling moves and follow up with one-on-one sparring.
The room is hot and music pumps through the speakers as Martin calls out orders to lift legs higher and punch above their shoulders as they run in circles around the room. Then Martin has them bear crawl in the same circuit until it's time for a break and a drink of water.
Martin travels with his team to fights most weekends.
He knows what the kids who join his club are up against.
He grew up in the gang life and at one point was grooming his own children for the same life, he said. He found his way out and now is trying to show young people how to avoid the same pitfalls.
Youth must maintain good grades, stay away from gangs
Martin has simple rules for those who want to join his academy: Kids have to stay away from gang activity, drugs and alcohol ,and maintain good grades at school.
The academy has been helping those such as Victor Ayalla, 15, of Pasco.
Victor said he had uncles who were gang bangers, and he always worried about getting jumped, beat up or worse. In middle school, he said he saw many fights and felt nervous.
"Three people were trying to beat me up, and I was always being picked on -- maybe because I was new (in school). I needed to defend myself," he said.
But more than anything, the regiment at the academy has earned him confidence and helped him to focus on doing well in school. He is a freshman at Pasco High. He said he sees the benefit of going to tournaments, winning and getting the taste of success.
"The feeling (of success) has helped me with my family and friends. I spend more time hanging out with them," he said.
Students are starting to take boxing seriously
With sweat running down his face and his body aching from the match he just finished, George Lopez, 17, of Pasco, looks like just another kid who is into mixed martial arts. He is a quiet kid, quick to smile and share in a laugh but he also has a serious side.
On Labor Day 2009, George's stepfather, whom he was close to, killed himself in the family's Pasco garage, he said. Lopez was devastated. He pulled away from his family and friends, and his grades suffered as he battled depression and blamed himself of his stepfather's death.
"I thought I could have done something to stop it that day," said George, who thought he heard something in the garage but went back to sleep.
A friend told him about Martin and the academy. After checking it out, he joined.
"I had my good days and my bad days, but Dustin could tell I was down and I opened up about my stepdad. Dustin really helped me out through that," he said.
George started taking the sport seriously and at his first competition last year in Boise, he took second place in the Northwest Submission Challenge.
That success left an impression on him.
"I told myself as hard as I work in this gym I'm going to put twice as much effort into school. And so I did. I didn't let anything stop me," said George, who carries a 3.5 grade-point average at Chiawana High School in Pasco and is mending ties with his mom and family.
His mother, Carmine Navarro of Pasco, has noticed the change.
"He wants to do really well in school. It's almost like an obsession," she said. "Everything is on the positive."
"When he gets upset and can't talk to me, he talks to his coach (Martin) and he really helps him out."
Club getting attention from Pasco legal system
Martin's academy also has gotten attention from the Pasco legal system. Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant has talked with Martin about the possibility of using his program as a deterrent for juvenile offenders. Sant said he sees how the regimented environment could help troubled youth.
"We are certainly interested in how it could work as a diversion program if (kids) want to separate from gang life, are motivated and have a desire to feel a part of a team," said Sant. He said that working with schools to direct kids toward activities at the academy would suit those seeking camaraderie and a sense of belonging.
Martin is working on applying for nonprofit status but admits he is overwhelmed by the paperwork. Any sponsorship would be welcome, he said.
Martin said moving forward with his academy and staying motivated has not been easy. Long hours as the night security watchman at Word of Faith Center in Kennewick and taking online college classes through Liberty University to become a Christian counselor drain him, he admitted.
"It's exhausting, but the thing that keeps me motivated is the kids. It was a couple weeks ago and I just really wanted to quit, I was just done, and George (Lopez) came to me and said, 'Dustin, they asked me to write a paper at school on the most influential person in my life, and I chose you.'"
Martin paused to wipe away a tear.
"That's what keeps me going."