By Andrea Kennedy
Grapplers all over Northern California hit the mat in March to tap out kid’s cancer. More than 100 men and women gathered at GMA member Cassio Werneck’s new Sacramento studio space for an open mat event to raise money for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. The foundation supports pediatric cancer research as well as families with children struggling with the disease, children the same age as some of the event’s younger attendees.
Though Northern California-based St. Baldrick’s is well-known for it’s efforts to find a cure, the foundation is growing in popularity due to a tangible trademark: shaved heads.
Leslie Garcia, former Cassio Werneck trainee, was one woman who braved the shave. The tradition shows solidarity with kids who lose their hair—or their lives—to pediatric cancer. As part of the St. Baldrick’s team at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, Garcia raised $6,000 for the foundation and had her head shaved at an NBA game 10 days before the open mat event. When attendees arrived at Werneck’s studio, Garcia proudly bared her bald head as she accepted donations for the charity.
Though the asking donation was $10, many gave more—$20, $50, even $100—for a total of $1,850.00. Nearly a third of her months of fundraising came from the one-day jiu-jitsu event alone.
“I am amazed and blessed to be surrounded by the most generous group of individuals,” Garcia says. “I love my jiu-jitsu family!”
Leslie’s husband, John Garcia, and a fellow trainee, Aimee Sugapong, brainstormed the idea of an open mat fundraiser for St. Baldrick’s while waiting to roll at one of Werneck’s weekly training sessions. Thanks to Sugapong’s flyer for the event circulating over social media, word spread among the tight jiu-jitsu community, and members responded in droves.
During the five-hour event, Werneck’s donated studio welcomed more participants than any open mat the Garcias had ever seen. Grapplers attended from both of Werneck’s studios, plus Infinite, Capital City, Team Maxwell, Waza, Kaizan, Bruddas, Carnage and other jiu-jitsu schools. For hours, nearly two dozen pairs rolled on the mat at one time while the overflow socialized and refueled with donated snacks and drinks.
“It brought people together from all over,” said Mark Kamizaki, one of the event’s attendees. “It’s great, because the more people we have training together the better the jiu-jitsu community. We’re always learning from each other.”
Kamizaki wasn’t just one of the guys rolling throughout the day. In line with Garcia’s new ‘do, he volunteered to shave his head at the jiu-jitsu event in support of kids with cancer.
“It feels really good to support the cause,” he says, adding that he also does it as “part of the family.”
And when Werneck offered an extra $10 donation for every person who shaved his or her head, two more volunteered to do the deed: Garcia’s husband, John, and the event photographer, Geary Silva.
At the event’s end, as Garcia thanked the sweaty men, women and kids exiting the studio, they in turn thanked her for the opportunity to contribute to a worthy cause and train at the same time.
Garcia even heard plenty of talk from attendees about turning the charity open mat into an annual affair—another mark of success for the event, and for the kids.