Three of Sunnyside’s top wrestlers have partnered with a state agency to host a wrestling and financial literacy camp for underserved youth in their community.
Counting Takedowns, which runs June 14-18, will host 60 Tucson students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
The camp is led by Blue Devils State Champions Jaime Rivera Jr., Audrey Jimenez and Michael Avelar, who all maintain a 4.0 GPA.
During the first four days of camp, the groups will alternate for 30-minute interactive learning sessions taught by Kathy Pondy and volunteers from the Arizona Council on Economic Education. The program will combine wrestling with economics and help campers understand how the lessons they learn in wrestling can be applied outside of sport.
The rest of the time will be spent learning wrestling techniques, with hands-on training on the mat.
Counting Takedowns is part of a scholarship the trio received through the Dragon Kim Foundation, a California-based nonprofit that empowers young people to impact their communities while pursuing their passions. The foundation was established in 2015 by Grace and Daniel Kim and is named after their 15-year-old son, Dragon, who was killed when a tree branch fell on his tent during a family camping trip to Yosemite.
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The foundation has already sponsored more than 300 high school students. Its scholarship program is designed to help young people lead by starting a service project from start to finish. Children in the scholarship program receive weekly mentorship, business training, and $5,000 in seed funding.
The scholarships were initially only available to students from California to Nevada, but the foundation expanded to Arizona this year. The Sunnyside team is one of the state’s top two scholarship recipients.
An innovative idea, a transformative training
Sunnyside wrestling trainer Anthony Leon learned of the opportunity from friend and UFC fighter Dominick Cruz, who served as a judge for the challenge in 2021.
Cruz also knows Rivera, a three-time state champion who will wrestle at West Point next year.
“When this year’s challenge came around, (Cruz) reached out to Leon and said they needed three guys from Sunnyside to do the challenge,” Rivera said.
The team held meetings and went through the application process, recording videos, filling out forms, writing essays and answering questions.
“It was a long process that we did very quickly,” Rivera said.
After talking with Leon, the athletes decided to pitch the idea of a camp that combined wrestling with some kind of math-based education.
“We thought the main purpose of our program was to help underserved people on the south side of Tucson, and people who might need a little help or are struggling,” Rivera said. “We thought if we added an academic side to the camp, that was something that had never really been done before. I’ve never been to a camp where they teach math or anything math-related. ‘school.”
Their application was selected, and the Sunnyside wrestlers attended a leadership boot camp in Las Vegas.
Jimenez called it a transformative experience.
“It was very interesting. On the first day, we were doing personal stuff and saying affirmations out loud or going to strangers and looking them in the eye,” she said. “It was very difficult socially and they put us in awkward situations, but it allowed us to think outside the box and really learn what leadership meant, authenticity and how to be ourselves throughout. this process.”
Jimenez, a two-time state champion, is one of the best young female wrestlers in the world. She recently won the U20 and U17 Women’s World Team Trials in Texas and will represent the United States at the World Championships in Italy in July and Bulgaria in August.
The Sunnyside Group decided to make financial literacy part of their camp, thinking it was the perfect opportunity to educate kids on topics that aren’t typically taught in schools, Rivera said.
Volunteer mentor George Figueroa, an accountant who studied accounting and finance at the University of Arizona, agreed.
“I see the problems people have all the time,” Figueroa said. “They don’t understand the debt they’re taking on and can fall into traps like buy-it-now, pay-later programs.”
Figueroa said the skills learned at camp can last a student’s lifetime, especially if a significant adult in their life — like a coach — points out its importance.
“I probably spent more time with my high school coach at that age than anyone else, and I would hang onto every word he said,” Figueroa said. “There is a great opportunity to use this type of forum with coaches who care about us and who are some of the best teachers at this point in our lives. We ask them to endorse this type of program with members of their team and hopefully that resonates with those wrestlers.”
Camp registration filled up faster than the Sunnyside group expected. The first 40 spots filled up immediately, and another 20 were added after people contacted to say they couldn’t register. Within 48 hours of registration opening, all 60 camp spots had been claimed.
The last day of camp will be open to the community and campers will talk about what they learned. Rivera said the barbecue-style event, complete with games, will be a good way to connect with the community.
“We really want to make a change. We want to inspire and lead others,” Rivera said. “I always mention how much I want to make a change and for people to see that there really are avenues for them and take advantage of their opportunities and never miss a beat.”
Rivera, Jimenez and Avelar still have in-person training ahead of their camp. They will travel to Las Vegas next week.
“It’s been a long process and I’ve been so busy with school on top of training and wrestling and trying to graduate early so it’s a lot of extra work,” said Jimenez. “But I’m very, very excited.”
Jimenez, her and her teammates, are doing something that has never been done in Sunnyside or even the area, which is worth it.
“There are so many kids who have higher limits than they realize, but they never step out of their comfort zone to reach their full potential,” she said. “I hope it will open their eyes to the education part and how to value education and their future and not just the struggle or what our community or society has planned for them.”
lessons for life
Jimenez said the camp will teach children that responsibility and hard work can outweigh a difficult family situation and a lack of resources.
“I would love to do it a few times a year or at least every year,” Jimenez said. “The Dragon Kim Foundation gave us a budget to run this camp, but we have so much support, especially in Sunnyside, and through our personal identities, we got support from other companies and businesses. It’s so simple and it will help so many children.”
Jimenez and Avelar, the 2022 state champion, will both return to Sunnyside in the fall. Jimenez said she hopes to be able to organize a second camp next year.
Dragon Scholars will showcase their projects in September at a celebration and graduation, with three projects being selected to participate in the foundation’s annual Orange County Challenge Gala. The winning team will receive additional funding to complete their project in a second year.
Figueroa hopes more students will apply for the challenge’s seventh cycle.
“It’s a fantastic program they have at Sunnyside,” Figueroa said. “When you think of some of the biggest sports organizations in Arizona…they’ve been at the top for so long now.”
Contact star reporter Caitlin Schmidt at 573-4191 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @caitlincschmidt