What started as a way to get away from gangs has turned into teaching from the heart for a Sedalia martial arts instructor.
Sensei John Contreras, a fifth degree black belt, has been teaching martial arts for years in Sedalia, but he got his start in El Paso, Texas.
“How I got started, I was gang-related for many, many years and I studied martial arts for that reason,” he said. “Where I come from, gang-related is a big thing. I was tired of being picked and beaten. I used to live 10 minutes from school, I had to go all the way around for about 45 minutes just to avoid the gangs.
“As time went on, I started studying martial arts, going by schools. Didn’t have the money, so I went and would sit at the martial arts school and just watch and watch. Finally one of the senseis gave me a chance. He took me in and let me study with him, and from there on is history. As I got older I graduated in 1981 from high school and I started teaching my martial arts.”
He said he originally wanted to become a MMA fighter, but thinks God didn’t provide that opportunity so that he would begin teaching others.
Contreras said he left El Paso in 1983 and traveled for years to escape the gangs’ reach. He returned in 1991 and began teaching martial arts when he was approached by kids in local gangs who wanted to find a way out. Two years later, his former school district asked if he would like to work with students in gangs — about 250 kids in one facility for at-risk students.
“‘We need to graduate them, but you can relate to them — we need a program like you’re doing,’” Contreras recalled school officials telling him. When he was asked by those officials if money was an issue for his program, this was his response: “What I’m doing is not a business. I’m doing it from the heart to get kids out of gangs, try to give them something positive.”
Contreras was forced to leave El Paso after two years working at the school due to threats from gang members who didn’t like that he was “taking their soldiers.” After a short stint in Dallas, he moved to Sedalia to be closer to family.
His Sedalia school is the Wolverine Dragon School of Martial Arts, which is a blend of five systems, according to the program’s flier: American Karate, Muay Thai, Tae Kwon Do, Kung-Fu and Jeet Kune Do. Contreras said while studying martial arts can teach a person to properly defend themselves, it can also teach self-confidence, self-respect, self-control, courage, integrity and self-discipline.
“I wanted to give kids a second chance in life,” Contreras said of his decision to open a program in Sedalia. “I had a hard time and I’ve learned that the martial arts gives you more than just learning to fight. Fighting’s the easy part. The hardest part about this is learning self-discipline, motivation, learning about yourself, what you can do and accomplish. This helps you in so many things.”
Contreras keeps his program fees low, only $35 a month for kids and $40 a month for adults. If a student is willing to commit to martial arts but can’t participate for financial reasons, Contreras said he helps out when he can.
“I want to help as much as I can. I have many kids that come up to me … that say, ‘John, we want to learn but we’re poor. How can we do this?’” he said. “… So I will talk to the parents and you can tell when a parent is sincere or not. … If I see it in their eyes and I see that they really, really want to learn, I’ll give them a grant. And I’ll pay for the grant. A $800 a year grant. I won’t just give it to anybody — I have to see that you look like you’re really going to stay with the program and I can help you.”
He worked in the La Monte School District for a few years before working in Sedalia and he started a program there. Once he moved the program to Sedalia, some of those La Monte students followed, including Robert Ulm, who is now Contreras’ assistant instructor and Contreras’ first student to earn a black belt.
Contreras also hosted a self-defense program in El Paso for women who had been raped or abused, and he said he hopes to start another women’s self-defense and/or MMA program in Missouri.
Classes are located at ABC Advertising, 400 S. Osage Ave., and are open to all ages. For more information about Wolverine Dragon School of Martial Arts, contact Contreras at 660-281-0590 or Ulm at 660-473-6549.
Nicole Cooke can be reached at 660-826-1000 ext. 1482 or @NicoleRCooke.