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As a boy, Eugene Johnson shared his love of martial arts with a close friend in his native Logan Heights.
Together, the two would compete in martial arts competitions, something that came easily for Johnson’s friend.
“He could just watch a martial arts movie and just pick up the moves naturally,” Johnson said. “He was a natural. But he just went down the wrong road.”
The friend joined a gang, was convicted of murder and was sent to jail, where he remains.
Johnson, now 45, spends his days trying to prevent other children from making the same mistakes. In his studio on El Cajon Boulevard in City Heights, Johnson teaches martial arts classes, hosts after-school activities and runs a program for teenagers who have been found skipping school or out past curfew.
Johnson serves on the city’s Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention. And he mentors more than two dozen boys, from 5th graders at Porter Elementary to juvenile offenders at Camp Barrett, a rural facility in the eastern part of the county.
Johnson credits his own ability to stay on the straight and narrow path to his father, who he said worked hard to instill values into his son. As a teenager, Johnson said he was approached about joining gangs but never tempted.
“I would have gotten my butt whooped by my father,” Johnson said.
His experiences have underlined for him the need for positive male role models for children. It’s especially important, he said, as the number of gangs has ballooned and as children are bombarded by violent images in television.
His involvement with San Diego’s youth is unhindered by his long commute from his home in Yuma. The heart of his operation is the Unity Tech Fitness Center, which he started a decade ago after spending 17 years working for the city’s Water Department. Though the center is probably best known for the martial arts classes, Johnson said it was always meant to be more than that.
“We wanted to work on mind, body and soul,” he said.
That’s why Johnson set up an after-school program where students can do homework and take exercise classes. Johnson charges for the program, but many students who can’t afford the classes don’t pay. Johnson, who is also a preacher, hosts free Bible study classes at the center.
The large space reflects its multiple uses. There’s a spacious area with mats on the floor, weight machines and exercise balls. Over the mirror are the words, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”
In an adjoining area, there are computers for kids to do homework. On the far side of the center, there’s a counter where Johnson sells water and energy drinks as part of his mini “snack and go” shop. Not far away, there’s a table laden with chess pieces that students are making as part of ceramics lessons.
Martial arts classes are held three times a week for adults and kids, including a few whose fees are waived because they can’t afford the classes. But the students say they are more than just classes, thanks to Johnson.
“It’s more like another family,” said Stacy Sanchez, 15, who has been taking classes from Johnson for years with her two older sisters, ages 16 and 18.
Their father signed them up because he wanted his daughters to have a sport to take part in. Johnson’s other students come through a variety of means: referrals from schools and police, walk-ins, word of mouth.
A Virtual Convening
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Every day we read and write stories about things that are going wrong in the San Diego region. We read about problems in the housing market. We find out about unaffordable transportation, problems with parks and the environment. We learn about fraud, malfeasance or apathy.
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The sisters say Johnson takes close stock of their lives: asking about their families, ensuring they bring in their report cards so he can check on their progress at school and looking for college scholarships for them. They said Johnson, who they call “professor,” talks to them about their lives before and after class. Keeping mum is not an option.
“When you don’t say anything, he asks,” said Jazmine Sanchez, 18, a student at San Diego State University.
She said Johnson helped her when she was feeling overwhelmed by being the oldest daughter in her family.
Soon after the sisters signed up for classes, Johnson met with Jazmine and her father, talking to Jazmine about the importance of being a role model for her sisters. He told her that with hard work, she could lead the class as a “sergeant at arms,” taking on responsibilities such as making sure younger students have their belts tied correctly.
“It was a pivotal moment,” she said. “It helped me outside of class because I know I can do anything. I can step up and be a leader.”
She and her sisters aren’t involved with drugs or gangs; they said Johnson helps ensure they don’t go down that path. But Johnson has turned around kids with serious problems, including a boy whom Johnson coaxed to leave the gang life.
The Sanchez sisters say students who misbehave — including the cardinal sin of disrespecting their parents — get a tough-love regimen of doing pushups on their bare knuckles instead of their palms. They also get heart-to-heart talks from Johnson that can make students burst into tears as he tells them how their parents love them or reminds them of all their good qualities.
Johnson is often stern, but has an uncanny sense of when to implement tough love with kids and when to adopt a softer approach, based on how students are responding to his words.
Students say learning martial arts is also fun and releases pent-up anger or anxiety. “When I get really stressed out, he really works you out,” Jazmine Sanchez said.
During a recent class, Johnson helped the sisters through a series of drills teaching them to disarm attackers wielding a plastic knife or a wooden club. They took turns stripping away the weapon and flipping each other to the rubber floor mat.
Johnson offered comments and demonstrated certain moves to the girls. He moved with ease for a 5-foot-10, 286-pound man, balancing easily on one leg to show off the swift kicks and blocks.
Mostly serious while teaching, Johnson cracks only an occasional smile. When the sisters struggled with one move, Johnson chuckled as the girls dropped a club to the floor to free up their hands to restrain their attackers.
“Why are you going to set the club down?” Johnson said, smiling and shaking his head.
In addition to martial arts, Johnson runs a “diversion program” for students picked up in truancy or curfew sweeps. The Police Department sends the students to Johnson, who isn’t paid for the classes. Johnson has tried to get grants for many of his programs, but hasn’t succeeded, funding them largely from his own pockets.
At the start of class, Johnson explains his philosophy. “This place is all about respect,” he tells students.
That means students must tuck in their low-hanging white shirts during class and refer to Johnson as “sir,” an act of respect Johnson hopes will carry through to their home lives.
Some days students in the diversion program work on ceramics. Johnson also leads them through a series of exercises, from stretches and jumping jacks to throwing jabs and uppercuts. During a recent session, he encouraged the stone-faced teenagers to increase their energy as he held punch pads for them to hit.
“I didn’t get these trophies here just going through the motions,” he told them, gesturing to a display in the corner of the room. “I didn’t defend myself on the streets just going through the motions.”
He added, “You’re doing good, but you’ve just got to put a little bit more into it.”
Teaching martial arts and boxing techniques might seem like a strange strategy for teaching kids to avoid trouble. But Johnson said he’s really building up students’ confidence so they can walk away from a bad situation.
“They don’t have to prove anything,” he said. “I haven’t had one student in this class go out of here and get into a fight.”
Johnson also laments the lack of role models for many children. That led him to form the mentoring program Brothers Helping Brothers. So far, nine men have signed up to mentor a combined three dozen boys. Johnson mentors several students himself, taking them fishing and helping them work through their problems with long talks.
“He has a great rapport with them,” said Kevin Jones, a longtime friend and minister at National City Church of Christ who helped Johnson start the mentoring program. “A lot of the kids who have grown up come back. They have a lot of respect for him.”
In addition to that program, Johnson travels to Camp Barrett twice a week to talk with teenage boys who have been convicted of crimes involving guns. They may put up a resistant front, but Johnson finds the teenagers eager to turn their lives around.
“A lot of them, the kids are walking the street (and) they have masks on,” he said. “They didn’t come out of their mother’s womb being violent.”
Johnson said many of the teenagers he talks with in Camp Barrett “see their mistake and they regret it.” He has helped find a job for one boy who was recently released.
It’s when Johnson is at Camp Barrett that he’s reminded most acutely of his childhood friend and what his life behind bars must have been like.
“It just hurt me in my heart to see the road that he took,” he said. “I don’t ever want any other kid to feel the same way.”
Please contact Rani Gupta directly at email@example.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.