Blackbelts for Butterflies brings light to the darkness of Sandy Hook

Rich McKeegan and Ian Hockley speak to a Black Belts for Butterflies seminar at Manchester BJJ on Nov. 4, 2017. Courtesy of Jeff Roberts/Flow Roll

On a warm, but otherwise unassuming early November morning, 100 people filed slowly into Manchester BJJ for the start of a two-day jiu-jitsu seminar. There was a buzz of excitement and familiarity, as circles of friends, new and old, surrounded the mat as everyone waited for the day's activities to begin.

The seminar, run under the Blackbelts for Butterflies banner, cost $100 for those lucky enough to get in, for which they received 10 hours under the learning tree with eight jiu-jitsu black belts from all over the United States who volunteered their time. But no matter how much they learned while rolling on the mats, which was likely a great deal, the experience will carry far beyond technique.

"The attendees that participate here, they're here for jiu-jitsu," said Rich McKeegan, the driving force behind Blackbelts for Butterflies. "But what they leave with is going to be something more."

It all started on Dec. 14, 2012 when McKeegan dealt with a dizzying range of emotions; on the same morning he experienced the joy of his son being born, the parents of 20 children and families of six educators were mourning the staggering loss of life at Sandy Hook Elementary School on the opposite end of Connecticut.

McKeegan felt compelled to figure out how he could give of himself, and eventually settled on one of his passions, which was jiu-jitsu. He ordered 500 patches, sold for $20 apiece, that BJJ participants could put on their gis with all proceeds going to the University of Connecticut Scholarship Foundation for the victims of Sandy Hook.

That single effort ultimately blossomed into a charity seminar, which led to the official start of the organization and movement that became Blackbelts for Butterflies. Through the connections he made in jiu-jitsu and charity outreach, he met Jennifer Jeffrey Carello, who was friends with Ian and Nicole Hockley -- parents who lost their son, Dylan, who was a student at Sandy Hook.

By the summer of 2013, he made a connection to Dylan's Wings of Change, a foundation headed by the Hockleys that was devoted to children with autism in memory of Dylan, who himself was on the spectrum. Through the focus of this cause, Blackbelts for Butterflies would ultimately grow to include events all over the country.

After McKeegan opened the sixth Blackbelts for Butterflies seminar, Ian Hockley stood up in front of the crowd to thank them for coming out to support a cause that could not be closer to his heart.

"When you're part of a movement, you realize the passage of time," Ian said to the assembled group. "And it's now nearly five years since the shooting at Sandy Hook, when Dylan was taken from us."

Over the course of the past five years, the Hockleys have dedicated themselves to helping out a number of different causes through their charity efforts, as a way of carrying on the spirit and memory of their son.

"One of our symbols is the butterfly, and you know, we have this story," Hockley said. "Dylan communicated in his own way. He had autism, and when he got stimulated he'd flap his hands. And one day he's flapping his hands and jumping up and down, and his mother, Nicole, asked him, 'Why do you flap Dylan?' She wasn't sure if he was going to answer, and he just said, 'Mommy, I'm a beautiful butterfly.'"

"The butterfly symbolizes change, so that fit in with the program," Hockley continued. "We started Dylan's Wings of Change initially for children with special needs that needed that extra help to get involved with things -- children in life that, if they get the help, they have the best chance to develop to their full potential."

The results of the work done by Dylan's Wings of Change can be felt throughout the Northeast in the United States. There was money given to a baseball league in the Bronx that had 120 kids with special needs, as well as support of the Special Olympics and Unified Sports. There's also the Wingman program, which has become a central focus for the foundation

"The Wingman Program, which we started, is a program for all children to experience. It doesn't just focus on special needs -- we want to teach children to see beyond differences, and accept everybody for who they are. Whatever their challenges in life, look for their strengths, and help each other develop socially and emotionally."

Through the work of Blackbelts for Butterflies and a number of other fundraising efforts, the Wingman program has stretched to 18 schools in Connecticut and New York. They've also gotten involved with dance studios, which led to a first of its kind performance that Hockley attended on the same night as the seminar.

It was one part of an intensely busy weekend for Ian Hockley. After going down to New York City to take part in the opening ceremony of the New York City Marathon -- his first, and another fundraising effort -- Hockley drove up to speak at the Manchester jiu-jitsu seminar before driving to Danbury for an adapted performance of The Nutcracker by children with special needs. Then, it was back down to New York City to run the marathon, which he managed to finish on his first try.

The Hockleys' lives were forever changed by the loss of their son, but the efforts they continue to put into helping children with special needs have helped thousands of children enjoy experiences that improved their quality of life and shaped their futures.

"If you're doing something good, it travels."

McKeegan spoke this phrase at the seminar, and it's a way of thinking that appears to be central to how he approaches life. He, too, has seen his life change dramatically since making that first step forward by getting a few hundred patches made.

Each subsequent email, message and phone call has made a ripple that carried throughout the tight-knit world of jiu-jitsu, and ultimately pushed him down an entirely different path in life. Blackbelts for Butterflies eventually grew to become the central focus of McKeegan's life, a dramatic transition from a path that saw him working in counseling before throwing himself in head-first.

In December 2012, McKeegan was a father-to-be and a two-stripe blue belt with five years' experience in jiu-jitsu. By the end of 2017, he was a brown belt, and he and his wife Josie have two kids of their own.

"I went from the restaurant industry, to substance abuse and mental health counseling," McKeegan said. "And now, my full-time job is running the academy and teaching jiu-jitsu. It's what I love to do. Would that have come to fruition if all of this had not? No, I doubt it."

Blackbelts for Butterflies was built on the continued efforts of McKeegan, his family and friends, but it wouldn't have gotten off the ground if others didn't quickly buy in as well. Piet Wilhelm, a black belt and retired United States Marine from Oklahoma, who bought some of those first patches, was one of the first supporters to come aboard. Through Wilhelm, McKeegan and Manchester BJJ owner Rob Magao, a charity seminar was organized for April 2013.

Robert Defranco, another black belt who hails from Texas, saw that seminar advertised online and reached out to help. Defranco bought himself a ticket and flew in for that seminar and has been a part of the cause ever since. The spirit of giving back and community is one that seems to reach throughout the jiu-jitsu world, and part of it comes down to the nature of what jiu-jitsu itself is at its core.

"You're not going to get better without other people," McKeegan said. "If you have an ego, then you're not going to be successful on the mats. You have to trust others. There's also something about getting on the mats and beating the snot out of each other, that brings you closer to another human being. You lose a lot of the ego, and then you see the benefits of that.

"It comes from the top down," McKeegan continued. "The coaches, the professors, the instructors... how they act and who they are is a trickle-down effect to the students. When you have role models that are giving back, it makes the students want to give back."

Between the black belts who volunteer their time and effort to the many sponsors who donate money and items, which get raffled off to further increase the donation to Dylan's Wings of Change and other causes that benefit autism, the movement would grow far weaker without any of its moving parts.

As tight-knit and giving a community as jiu-jitsu is as a whole, from white belts up through black belts, the message of Blackbelts for Butterflies resonated throughout the country -- and it ultimately reached a number of families with children dealing with autism and other special needs.

DeFranco, who volunteered his time to help the victims of Sandy Hook before autism became the central focus of McKeegan and Blackbelts for Butterflies' efforts, has a child on the spectrum and was deeply affected by Ian Hockley's story.

"I get to go home and hug my son," DeFranco said. "My son was the same age, my son is autistic as well, and is also in a special-ed program at his school. Even though the first time we came here wasn't about helping autistic kids, I was drawn back here because of that. I saw his story on the news, and I saw my son in his."

Pat Campagnola, who runs 10th Planet Jiu Jjitsu in Springfield, Massachusetts, spent part of his afternoon in front of the seminar, talking through the experience of discovering a child is on the autism spectrum and of all of the challenges that follow, hoping to raise public awareness.

And at one edge of the mat on this morning at Manchester BJJ, 9-year-old Ethan Harper represents the cross-section of it all.

For Jennifer Harper, his mother, jiu-jitsu represents something of a miracle that has transformed her son's life. The family hails from Norfolk, Virginia, where all four of Harper's children train at KoBuKan Martial Arts under Ron Manes.

Jennifer had brought Ethan along with her to the facility from the time he was two-years-old, as her other children trained first in karate, and then in jiu-jitsu. After a couple of years of watching his brother and sister do karate, Ethan wanted to get involved.

"When he was old enough, at four, he kept saying, 'I want to try. I want to try,'" Jennifer said. "We let him try. We did a lot of just trying to keep him on the mats -- once he got out there, it was very overwhelming for a child with autism to be in that situation.

"It was a lot of tears and a lot of frustration, but he's now a yellow belt in karate, so he does make progress," Jennifer said. "It's a lot slower than a typical child, but we just try to teach him that even if it takes you longer, as long as you don't give up, you'll get the results you're looking for.

"He spent quite a few years transitioning into the program, because karate's very solo, and they stand by themselves, they're not touched or anything," recalled Manes. "You know, it was hard for him to say, 'kiai' [an attacking shout in karate]. He didn't want to speak, and he was very quiet. Sometimes, he would just leave. Eventually, it got to where he got better and louder. Then, the other three siblings decided to join in our jiu-jitsu program."

Just as he'd watched them take up karate, which eventually pulled him in, Ethan expressed an interest in jiu-jitsu this past January. It was a form of martial arts that represented an entirely different challenge, because Ethan was a tactile child who didn't like to be touched.

"His caveat was, he said, 'I only want to do it with you and you alone,'" Manes said. "I was very touched by that, well, because we had established a relationship in karate. So, I got him on the mat and we touched a little bit first. We got used to how to the gi felt, and some of the things that could happen -- how gi could hurt you sometimes, pulling, and choking, and tugging, and I spent a few weeks giving him, basically, a private lesson."

"He did private lessons with Mr. Ron for about a month and a half -- they rolled a couple of days a week during the day, just the two of them when everyone else was in school," Jennifer said.

And then one Saturday, Ethan shocked everyone and asked to get involved in the regular class with all of the other kids.

"One day, the gis are hanging up. He's got his gi drying on a bag. We're getting ready to start the kids class, about an hour before, and he says, 'Mr. Ron, that's my gi hanging up there.' And I said, not even really thinking, 'You should put that gi on and go join the class.' He looked around for a second and went, 'Mama, can I join the class?' and she was like, 'Uh, sure I guess.' And that was it. He jumped in the class, and I haven't had any problems with him."

"We're very lucky that kids at our academy are very welcoming and understanding," Jennifer said. "So when he would start crying or having a meltdown or get uncomfortable, the kids would just immediately stop and say, 'It's OK Ethan. Just take a deep breath, and we'll start over.'"

Manes now has a model student who has helped him put other parents with special needs students at ease, and Ethan's taken to jiu-jitsu like a fish to water. He's been to seminars, including one where he met Piet Wilhelm and received the Blackbelts for Butterflies patch directly from Wilhelm's gi. It inspired the Harpers to travel with Manes and Jennifer's niece, Alexis, to the seminar in Manchester. Ethan spent part of the afternoon on the sidelines watching, but also took the opportunity to learn techniques along with everyone else in attendance.

"People are naturally, I think, inherently good," McKeegan said. "When they see something, they want to be a part of it. Not everyone has that first initial ability to start something, but so many people get behind something. It's honest. It's sincere. They're not looking to get anything out of it, but the benefits of what everyone has gotten out of it have been life-changing."

The message and efforts of people like McKeegan, Hockley, Defranco, Wilhelm, Manes and many others have forged this seemingly unlikely bond because of jiu-jitsu, and Ethan Harper is as shining an example of how much community and acceptance can mean.

"In the last year since he started jiu-jitsu, he's really opened up. He's almost like he's a completely different kid," Jennifer said. "He's willing to try things. He sees that in jiu-jitsu that there are people who are willing to support him, even though he's different. They just accept him for who he is, which, as a mom, is really hard. You watch your kid get left out. You watch them get passed over, and so jiu-jitsu has been the greatest thing that could've happened for him."