Most people think of "Rocky" when they think of boxing gyms: lots of sweat, the pop and smack of gloves hitting practice mitts, sparring overseen by a grizzled, old trainer squinting around a burning cigarette. And some of that is part of the atmosphere upon entering Valor Elite Training Center in Medford (scratch the grizzled trainer and especially the cigarette smoke).
And no, the "Rocky" theme isn't playing as Valor Elite's very special group of students arrives Thursday mornings.
This is trainer Tim Trujillo's favorite class of the week. For two years, Valor Elite has donated a weekly boxing class to a group of young adults from Southern Oregon Education Service District's transitional program. The program assists students who have varying degrees of intellectual and/or developmental disabilities with job training and other life skills that lead to adult independence after graduation.
Trujillo greets this class of 14 or so, ranging in age from 18 to 21, with an endearingly upbeat and boisterous style.
"How ya doin' today, Danny?" Danny ducks his head and smiles.
"It happens every week," says Trujillo. "They walk through the door subdued, unfocused, some hunched into themselves. But once they get moving around and put those gloves on, they get happy."
The training program excludes sparring, so students use their boxing skills on punching bags and practice mitts only. Yet the benefits of this mental and physical exercise are obvious to the educators and to parents who notice marked improvements in participants' hand-eye coordination, reflexes and ability to adapt to their environments.
"Their confidence has just skyrocketed, says Gwyn Lema, vocational program specialist at SOESD, who assists with all aspects of developing life skills for the students and their families.
"As an educator, I would have every student who wanted to take part in this class because it is such a positive confidence-builder. It seems to give them a feeling of well-being — that they belong. Everybody leaves the gym feeling good about themselves."
The group heads to the ring, where they warm up with jumping jacks, bending and stretching exercises. Before long, the young faces are dewy, and everyone is grinning. That includes volunteers David Kohart, Valor's mixed-martial arts trainer, Edgar Carranza, amateur boxer, and Todd Beck, an engineer with Ashland Fire & Rescue, who donate their time every week.
Trujillo has a special way with this group. All students respond to his booming voice with their best efforts while he returns gentle encouragement and the utmost respect.
"Good job; you've got it!" is heard amid the staccato of gloves against mitts.
Huge smiles, some giggles and outright laughter ripple through the group as Trujillo keeps them moving, sometimes breaking into "Keep them doggies rollin'." The students love it.
The transition is moving. Profound. Every student is mentally and physically engaged. Joy shows on their faces as the volunteers stand in front of each student and call out boxing combinations. From the skilled to the timid, all make an effort, and all seem to be having the time of their lives.
"Jesse is a young man who, I think, has been there the longest," says Lema. "He absolutely loves it. He's become much more coordinated, and he's really gotten into being physically fit. When Danny comes in, he just beams. Taylor is another one. The exercise has really improved her health. And Jay's mother said it's the best thing he's ever done, that it has helped him so much. He now interacts in a way that he never has before."
"It's a win-win," says Trujillo, obviously proud of these young adults. "We have fun, they love the exercise and everyone feels like they've done something good for the day."
He credits his brother, Valor Elite's owner, Dr. Robert (Joey) Trujillo, himself a martial-arts expert, for partnering with SOESD.
"All these young adults have just flourished because of this program," says Lema, "and I give all the credit to Tim. The success is all a direct result of him and his team, who are all so positive and so wonderful with each of the students. They all seem to enjoy doing it. It's heartwarming."
For more information, call Tim Trujillo at 541-890-0347.