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Neighborhood Ninjas has a crucial mission: Make the sport accessible and safe for the youngest athletes

Through sponsorships and a mentorship program, Neighborhood Ninjas looks to create a community united by care and connection.

Neighborhood Ninjas/Instagram

American Ninja Warrior, a family show, has sparked the rise of Ninja Warrior as a sport for all ages. Local gyms spawned local competitions. From those competitions emerged the leagues and large-scale events. Athletes from every generation have found a place in the sport and the surrounding community, which prides itself on solidarity and inclusion for all.

That requires special consideration for the youngest community members: Vulnerable kids who want to be Ninjas. It’s a responsibility that cannot be taken lightly. One group, Neighborhood Ninjas, approaches it head-on.

Neighborhood Ninjas is a non-profit that is dedicated to making the sport a safe space by acknowledging stark facts - Children deal with inequity and trauma. With that acknowledgment, come the questions. How can we prevent it? How can we change their worlds? How can we help them heal?

Neighborhood Ninjas (a federally recognized 501c3 tax-exempt non-profit organization) was started in 2018 by Sean Darling-Hammond (the Giving Ninja) and Sarahlyn Salisbury-Jones. The organization is now helmed 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 coach for three years. She laughs when asked about her American Ninja Warrior appearances, saying it’s been limited to “quality” audience participation. She also has a background in psychology, mental health, and trauma work. Neighborhood Ninjas is the culmination of those passions. Alex spoke with us about the organization's current endeavors.

“We aim to increase access and diversity within the sport of Ninja,” Alex shared. “We provide trauma-informed opportunities for kids to build growth-mindset and resilience. We envision helping kids build confidence, community, connection, and compassion.”

To understand the work of Neighborhood Ninjas, consider the weight of the words in that statement. What is “trauma-informed”? It’s a shift in mindset that alters how we relate to others.

“Trauma-informed means that when you’re interacting with other people, you’re looking at it from this lens of assuming that anyone may have experienced trauma,” Alex explained to us. “We’re working specifically with kids who are low-income, LGBTQ youth, kids in foster care. We have to assume that these kids have all experienced some sort of trauma in their lives. When we’re interacting with these kids, we want to make sure we’re taking their lived experiences into account.”

That level of care guides all of Neighborhood Ninjas programs. They have taken on the monumental task of building confidence in kids on an individual level and providing safe spaces to grow. That work is done through their ongoing sponsorship and mentorship programs.

The Neighborhood Ninjas Scholarship Fund, one of the very first programs established, was designed to give kids access to Ninja Warrior gyms, regardless of their financial situation. That has expanded beyond gyms into scholarships to National Ninja League (NNL) and Ultimate Ninja Athlete Association (UNAA) competitions. Neighborhood Ninjas has given out 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 the sport. “It’s a time when the community can come together and make those connections. You never know when the growth mindset will kick in at an event of this scale,” Alex said of the sponsorship program.

“When NNL Worlds were in Hartford, we had a little girl with cystic fibrosis. Najee Richardson was her hero. We gave her a scholarship and she fell on the first obstacle. She was so upset. She was like, ‘I’m never doing Ninja ever again. All these people were watching me. I embarrassed myself.’

We got Naj to go over and meet her and talk to her. He told her how he’s also fallen on the first obstacle. He had this conversation with her and it completely changed her outlook. She was like, ‘Everybody falls. I’m going to try again. I’m not done with Ninja. I’m going to get stronger and try again next year.’ This one moment was pivotal for her. ”

Since the program's inception, around 70 kids have applied for gym or competition scholarships. Most applicants, Alex told us, have been able to receive a scholarship. But the work doesn’t stop with processing the paperwork. Neighborhood Ninjas goes to great lengths to make sure these experiences are nothing but positive for the recipients. They’ll vet (as much as they can) the closest gyms in the applicants' area and try to match them with the environment that’s right for them.

“Going back to that trauma-informed piece, if we have an LGBTQ kid who wants a scholarship, and the gym that they want to go to, maybe there’s some bullying of other queer kids. We’re going to assess, is this a good fit for the kid or not? Ultimately, it’s their decision.”

The Neighborhood Ninjas Scholarship Fund tirelessly works to place kids in positive environments. Their mentorship program looks to equip them with the ability to navigate those environments with confidence and resilience.

After an initial launch in 2020, Neighborhood Ninjas’ mentorship program is currently taking applications for its second season.

Season one included eight mentees and six mentors. Those mentors include some familiar names from the TV show, including Perry Madison, Megan Budway, and Jessie Graff. The mentees came from all over the country. Thanks to virtual meetings, the program was able to safely launch during the depths of the pandemic.

“They just want connection,” Alex said when asked about what the mentees are 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 has before.

I think most kids struggle with feeling like they fit in. They struggle with feeling like they have role models they can look up to. A lot of them just want guidance.”

Neighborhood Ninjas carefully matches mentors and mentees and equips everyone with the tools needed to get the most out of the new relationship. “Once they apply, we do interviews and match them based on fit, not necessarily location. We want to make sure they’re able to meet each other’s needs. The mentee says, ‘I need help with this thing,’ or, “I am a queer kid, can I get a queer mentor?’

We do a mentor training where they learn things like the practices of effective mentoring, how to help their mentee with goal setting. The mentees get their own training. We’ll do stuff about setting boundaries and healthy relationships, which is super important. We’ll do that with them before we even start because we want to make sure there are healthy boundaries on both sides.”

To be clear, the program is not just a chance to get a free Ninja Warrior coach. The commonality of Ninja Warrior is an ice breaker that leads to deeper work.

“Goal setting is a really big one that we focus on,” Alex said. “Taking what they’re learning in the gym and applying that to other things in their lives. If an obstacle is tough, what do you learn from that? How can you break down this obstacle line into small pieces? Same thing in life. How do you break down a goal into smaller, manageable pieces? How do we bring some of that growth mindset and resilience into it?”

For season two of the mentorship program, the pairs will meet either virtually or in person, on a bi-weekly schedule.

“When they meet, it’s a combination of whatever they are working on. We have them focus on developing confidence with their mentees. A lot of that is helping them develop a sense of self. I think a lot of our mentees don’t know who they are outside of being a Ninja.”

While season one of the program is technically still ongoing (it will wrap up in March), the results are already apparent to those involved, including the mentors.

“They’re helping a kid grow and develop and that’s a great feeling for anyone. We started in January and being able to see that transformation in their kids (mentees) has been really important.

The kids have talked to us about how much their confidence has improved. Confidence is a really hard thing to measure. It’s showing up in ways like putting themselves out there to try something new and scary. It’s showing up as having a better sense of who they are. Not being afraid to show other people who they are because that’s something their mentors have modeled.”

Neighborhood Ninjas has created almost a wheel of care for their participants: Placing them into gyms, teaching them confidence and goal setting, and finally, making sure they are sending kids out into a community that is equipped to protect them. Enter, Partners in Prevention, a new program 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 facilitator and have the ability to train and certify gyms to become partners in the prevention of child sexual abuse,” Alex told us. While the training will be made available at no cost to all gyms that have a mentor or mentee in the program, any gym or organization can receive training for a small amount.

“This is something we’re trying to bring out into the community, outside of the gyms. Communities that our kids might be a part of. 1 in 10 kids has experienced sexual abuse,” Alex stressed.

“We’re telling kids we care about their growth and their safety, and we’re putting them into gyms where we don’t what they’re a part of. We thought about how we can better equip the community. There’s a lot of talk about, ‘Not our community,’ or, ‘Not our gym.’ It’s easy to say. We’re trying to get people to understand what the flags are and to be empowered to be active bystanders in their community.

1 in 10 means that a kid in your class will have experienced sexual abuse, even if it wasn’t at your gym. How can you be best equipped to support them? That goes back to the trauma-informed piece. The kid as a whole person, not just an athlete.”

Neighborhood Ninjas also puts on virtual and in-person community days. Community days have introduced the sport of Ninja to new audiences and special groups, such as group care homes for children in foster care. Virtual events can focus on various topics, including bullying.

Saying, “It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it,” feels extremely trite when referring to Neighborhood Ninjas’ work. But that is what’s happening here. American Ninja Warrior as a sport and community has drawn children from all walks of life into its fold. Neighborhood Ninjas is here to make sure the wonderful space is accessible and safe for all.

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