By Danny O’Donnell
Higher Ground is an organization whose mission is to “empower one life at a time to reach, transform, and elevate the community through love and building character.” This is mainly accomplished through a series of programs designed to help young people grow and flourish so they can ultimately contribute to the community that they are a part of. These programs are focused on developing social and emotional skills like self-control, grit, emotional management and growth mindset. The activities used to build these skills include grappling, boxing, dance, music, drumline, art, robotics, digital arts, computer coding, outside sports, and homework help. Higher Ground also functions as an alternative to detention for Pima County Juvenile Court Center. There are currently 10 school locations where the Community Schools Strategy is implemented to help students who are chronically absent.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Purple belt Jansen Azarias is the founder and Executive Director of Higher Ground. The organization started as Jansen was working through personal issues with his wife and son. He saw that teaching his son and tutoring him in school were having tremendous benefits and he eventually began helping his son’s friends using these same means. Jansen realized how powerful the lessons he was able to impart to these kids were and eventually began teaching about 60 of them in a church building. This started over 10 years ago.
Jansen’s journey into personal development began at a very young age. He started practicing martial arts at age 6. “I’ve done several of them including Eskrima, Aikido, Taekwondo, Kajukenbo, Boxing and many others. I first got introduced to Japanese Ju Jutsu in the Philippines and found it extremely enjoyable. I then got introduced to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu through a neighbor of mine, a purple belt who trained with his son in his garage and I enjoyed the handful of sessions I was able to go.” Jansen soon realized how important the lessons martial arts instilled were and how they could be beneficial to the youth. “When I started Higher Ground, several of the kids wanted to learn martial arts. I decided to teach them Japanese jujutsu.” After competing in a local grappling tournament and seeing positions on the ground he was not familiar with, Jansen decided to learn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He found David Reilly of Undisputed and began taking his kids there about 6 years ago.
The grappling program at Higher Ground is just one example of how the organization strives to give the youth a positive outlet and opportunity to grow. As the leader of the organization, Jansen is always evaluating what is being offered and how it will ultimately be of the most benefit. “I drive the vision and ensure that our organization stays focused on our mission. I am also the face of our organization and represent us to other organizations, donors, and partners. Additionally, the majority of the programs developed at Higher Ground are developed by me and my wife. I also mentor and life coach several students and am often involved in ensuring that they build the skills they need. Finally, I am also the coach of our grappling team that competes all around the country.”
Although Higher Ground has come a long way as an organization, Jansen has set aggressive strategic goals over the next 5 years. “The 1st one is that we will continue to build an organization that has high quality structure, skills, and capacities to support our programs and growth. The 2nd one is to double the amount of students we serve from 2,000 to 4,000 kids by utilizing our Community School Strategy to be in more schools. The 3rd one is to diversify our funding sources to ensure sustainability of our growth.” To learn more about Higher Ground and to get in touch with Jansen or its other leaders you can visit www.higherground.me.