Blackbelts for Butterflies – Jiu-Jitsu for Autism

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Blackbelts for Butterflies – Jiu-Jitsu for Autism

Dedicated to Dylan Hockley, a beautiful butterfly 

By John Krejcha

“Know that your actions cannot be hoarded, saved for later, or used selectively. By your hand, millions—billions—of lives will be altered, caught up in a chain of events begun by you this day.” —Andy Andrews: The Butterfly Effect

On Friday, December 14th, 2012, tragedy struck at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT where 20 children and six educators were fatally shot by a gunman who later committed suicide.

As the stories of victims unfolded, the world learned about Dylan Hockley, a six-year-old boy on the autism spectrum found in the protective arms of his special education teacher, Anne Marie Murphy. She was trying to shield him before both passed away.

Nicole Hockley talked about Dylan at his memorial. “Dylan loved trampolines, plain spaghetti with garlic bread and the color purple and most of all, he loved everything butterfly related.” Nicole told a special story at the memorial about the time she asked Dylan why he would sometimes flap his arms up and down when he got excited, as some autistic children are known to do. She wasn’t expecting a response because his language skills were still underdeveloped, but Dylan did answer… “Because I am a beautiful butterfly.”

On Friday, December 14th, 2012, another story unfolded 48 miles away at Hartfield Hospital in Hartfield, CT, a story of new life. Rich McKeegan recalls, “It was the most exciting day for the two of us because it was the day we were scheduled for a C-section to have our first child. At 8:20 A.M. our beautiful son was born into this world, healthy and perfect in every way possible for two new parents.”

As Rich went into the waiting room to share the good news with his in-laws, he noticed everyone gathering around the TV. That’s when he caught the first bit of news about the school shooting in his home state. Three hours later, Rich was at the nurse’s station getting ready for his baby’s first bath. He shares, “I was in a state of amazement looking at my son, watching his every movement, not paying attention to the nurses on the phones until one spoke up pretty loudly stating that something was wrong with the school shooting. Ambulances were going out, but none of them were coming back with casualties. At that single moment in time, my experience of fatherhood was now intertwined with an event that will forever cast a shadow of sadness in my heart.“

A few days passed and Rich knew in his heart he had to do something to help with this senseless tragedy. At the time, Rich had been training for five years in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) and had achieved the rank of blue belt. He thought of his brothers and sisters in the jiu-jitsu community, people with huge hearts and people of honor. Together with his friends, they created 500 patches for BJJ players to put on their gi uniforms to raise money for the UConn Scholarship Foundation for the victims of Sandy Hook.

The patch project spread throughout the country and led to a charity seminar in April 2013 with black belt and purple belt trainers attending from as far away as Oklahoma and Texas. Rich soon made a connection with Jennifer Jeffrey Carello, a woman who trained in Newtown and was friends with Ian and Nicole Hockley whose son Dylan passed away at Sandy Hook Elementary the same day Rich’s son was born.

Shares Rich, “Somehow I was drawn to that little boy. Something inside of me hurt when I saw pictures of his little eyes smiling, his contagious laugh that was transparent even through a stolen moment.”

Rich knew he wanted to do something meaningful to support the autism community and so he came up with the idea of putting together a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu weekend super seminar, inviting black belt trainers from around the country to teach.  Blackbelts for Butterflies (BB4BF) spread their wings, and their first mega-event took place during the weekend of May 18th, 2014. 

Rich reflects on the journey, “I had never imagined what this experience would turn into, I never imagined the emotions that would run so deep among so many. Every day I would introduce the black belts and thank all of them for their time. Every day I would choke up, fight back the tears from the sadness I felt from the tragedy and how proud I was to stand shoulder to shoulder with such amazing people. We had people from across the nation teaching, not only jiu-jitsu but life philosophy. Men that were warriors talked about their personal account and experience with this event and how it affected them. I watched warriors fight back the tears; their invincible armor shed as they were shown as fathers, uncles, teachers, role models, and the amazing, caring people they were.”

“That weekend I saw so many of my jiu-jitsu brothers and sisters come together for jiu-jitsu, for family, for emotional support of each other. I sat and watched all weekend people sharing techniques, sharing stories, and sharing embraces of hugs and love in a way that I had never imagined when I started out on this journey.”

Proceeds went to benefit Dylan’s Wings of Change, a foundation devoted to children with autism and created in Dylan Hockley’s memory. Their unique Wingman leadership program inspires children to go above and beyond for each other and create acceptance and empathy leading to inclusion for all.

The first Blackbelts for Butterflies event was so successful that the special events continued. Some supported Dylan’s Wings of Change, while other events held in other areas of the country benefiting other autism organizations. In August 2016, BB4BF came to Washington and event proceeds were donated to Autism Empowerment.

Rich shares, “James Foster has supported BB4BF since the beginning and came to CT to teach the first two years we held our events. When the idea came up of heading to the West Coast, James made it a point to hold the first event outside of CT at his school in Kent, Washington. We like to make sure the money stays in the state that we are traveling to. We chose Autism Empowerment because we wanted to make sure the money we raise goes to smaller nonprofits that might not have the same commercialism as the larger ones. Autism Empowerment was a natural choice after looking into AE and seeing all the great work they were doing.”

There are no typical events. “We have been working and evolving every event. Because this is so very new, we are a work-in-progress. Every event is extremely special and unique; between the black belts that come and teach and the attendees which create the atmosphere. I always like to have guest speakers at the events that can speak firsthand of how autism has impacted their lives. I have family members discuss the challenges they personally have with their children who are on the spectrum as well as dispel myths and stereotypes. I always talk about Dylan in the beginning because his story is the heart of BB4BF. Dylan is the driving force behind us, so I speak about how his story impacted me to start BB4BF and Dylan’s father, Ian Hockley always attends our events in CT to talk about his amazing son and his legacy.”

When asked about future events, Rich answered, “We want to grow organically and make sure BBFBF continues to share the message of positive impact. We are looking to do three events in 2017 in new states and bring more black belts into the fold of teaching. We are out here accepting everyone for who they are and we care. We as a community believe in acceptance and are going to continue to educate and assist families. There are some talented people out there that train jiu-jitsu that are on the spectrum that I am friends with. Eventually, I would love to develop a program for children on the spectrum and with disabilities so we can share our passion for the art with more people. BB4BF is still growing, and in the future, I know we will have more people on the spectrum involved. The year 2017 is about Autism Acceptance. We want to drive that message this year.”

No matter what the future holds, Rich wanted people to know, “As we focus on the future and the goals we want to accomplish let’s not forget why we started. We started this out of pure tragedy; we started this out of pain. We started this because a beautiful little blue-eyed boy was taken from us. So no matter where we go, where we are, or what we accomplish, we will always carry in our hearts the beautiful little butterfly that loved to cuddle, make purple dots, and had a smile that will never diminish. We will always Roll for Dylan!”

At Dylan’s memorial, his mom, Nicole commented about his legacy, “His death will have meaning. There will be a positive change from this.” She was correct. Dylan’s beautiful butterfly wings are having their own butterfly effect, helping each day to improve lives in the autism community in Southwest Washington, in the Portland metro area and around the world.

For more information about the organizations listed in this article, please visit:

Blackbelts for Butterflies – www.bb4bf.org  http://www.bb4bf.org/

Dylans Wings of Change Foundation – www.dylanswingsofchange.org

Wingman Program for schools, dance and sports – www.wingmanleague.org

Autism Empowerment – www.autismempowerment.org

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