Featured Story: Project Dojo

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Job: 1/50
Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico
How I found the job: Snagajob.com
Date: June 2, 2014
Initial thoughts after being hired: I’m going to get beat up by an eight year old girl, awesome.
Clocked in: 9:00AM
Clocked out: 8:30PM
Time on the clock:11.5 hours
Hourly Workers I apprenticed:

  1. Lawrence- Sensei, 2nd degree black belt
  2. Kayla- Yoga teacher, ballerina
  3. Veronica- non profit Zumba instructor, full-time clerk at hospital

Memorable quotes from the day:

“It heals you on the inside too, helping other people trying to make something better of themselves.” – Lawrence

My First of Fifty Consecutive Hourly Jobs Across America

I was terrified before my first day of work. I don’t know why I was so nervous, I’ve started several jobs in the past, but this time it was different. This was something new altogether. I’m married now. I’m filming a documentary. It’s all new.

The day started like many others, I woke up 5:30AM and put on a pot of coffee. I wrote in my journal and then Alyssa woke up a little while later and we enjoyed some pancakes together before heading off for our day of filming.

Our first job was at Project Dojo, a non profit in Albuquerque, NM. I had no idea what a dojo was, apparently some kind of martial arts studio. Nonetheless, I’d never stepped foot in one. I had no idea what to expect upon entering.

Alyssa and I maneuvered our 29 foot RV through light Monday morning traffic in Albuquerque. I used to work for a moving company and we would drive 26 ft. box trucks around Austin during rush hour, so this wasn’t bad at all.

We fought over the GPS on our way to the job, as I would learn later this would be the typical argument we had on the road. We don’t fight all that much, but when we do, it’s because we can’t decide if we are turning left or right. Alyssa is usually right, but it doesn’t stop me from getting a little agitated. Driving a giant RV can be stressful.

We finally found the correct address and pulled into the Project Dojo parking lot. I unbuckled and took a deep breath, this is it.

Alyssa grabbed the film equipment, stepped outside, and began rolling film.

“Okay, I’m rolling.”

I stepped outside and smiled awkwardly at the camera, probably saying something about our first job was today. I don’t really remember, I just remember being weird about it.

Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 9.15.09 AM

I think too much when it comes to being on film and then feel like I have to act a certain way in front of the camera instead of just being myself. I don’t know if it’s camera shyness or camera awkwardness, either way it’s real thing. I swear.

I began walking towards the front door where I had noticed some kiddos outside stretching in martial arts uniforms. I opened the front door and smiled at what seemed to be a girl working the desk at a smoothie shop.

“Um…I think I’m at the wrong place.” I told her.

Strike one for Heath. I closed the door, laughed it off and headed towards the actual front door of Project Dojo. I opened the correct door this time and was greeted by Travis and Michelle Hodnett, directors of Project Dojo. As well as Lawrence, an hourly instructor and second in command. They seemed genuinely happy to see me. That was a good sign. We shook hands, introduced ourselves, and starting making small talk about what was going to come in my first day of work.

The Adventure Begins

Ten minutes into my first job Travis told me that one of his hourly workers was coming in for an interview. She was a yoga teacher who recently came back from a mission trip overseas where she had been teaching English as a second language.

I was nervous all over again. Oh wow, my first interview already? I’m not ready for this.

A big part of our mission for Hourly America is sharing the stories from hourly workers. We want to hear about their struggles, passions, dreams and what’s going on in their life. We believe if you can learn about what’s really going on inside a person’s life, as well as their job, then you will ultimately treat them with more respect and more empathy.

For example, if you were going out to eat a restaurant where you knew the waitress had three kids and was a single mother. You would absolutely be willing to treat her accordingly. As an added result, you would more than likely tip her an additional amount as well (if you’re a decent human being and not poor).

This is precisely what Hourly America is about, but on a much larger scale.

Travis’s hourly instructor walked into the gym and I had to shake my nerves.

We introduced ourselves and she was clearly as nervous as I was, sweet as could be though. We sat down, I asked her some questions about her experiences as a yoga teacher, what she was passionate about, and then at the end of our interview she showed me how to do a yoga pose. I was pretty awful at it, seeing as I had never done yoga in my life. But she was a great sport and showed me anyway.

“Thanks for your time, and it was great meeting you.” I told her.

Whew. That wasn’t so bad. I think I can do this. How many more jobs do I have? Oh yes, fifty more jobs. Okay, I think I can do this.

Getting to Know My Boss

Travis and I
Travis and I

After the morning interview and group of kids doing their routines, Travis told Alyssa and I to pile into the car. We were going to learn what it’s like running a martial arts studio for the day.

We drove around town and I asked how Project Dojo had come about and why he decided to launch a non profit martial arts studio for kids in the heart of Albuquerque.

He laughed and said, “It all happened by accident.”

It started like most great stories, with love.

Travis was working his shift one day at Applebees and his manager came over to him and said, “Hey, there’s a new girl who just started today and I think you’ll hit it off with her.”

He walked over and started talking to Michelle and found out she was also a student of martial arts and was a blue belt. Travis, being a seasoned practitioner of the arts, knew that beginners claimed all too often they were a black or blue belt, so he challenged her to prove it. Michelle roundhouse kicked a barstool in the middle of Applebee’s and Travis knew he had found the one.

A few years of dating and they moved in together and married. Soon after, a little one was born. Up until this time, he and his wife had continued their martial arts training at their gyms. However, as most new parents find out very quickly, raising a baby is a full time job in itself. They soon lost their gym time as the baby dictated the majority of their schedule.

As a solution to the loss of gym time, Travis decided to buy a punching bag and a mat for the garage. With the convenience of training at home, they were able to keep a baby monitor in the garage while also staying in shape.

It reaches pretty ridiculous temperatures in the summer of Albuquerque, so the garage door was soon opened to allow a breeze in during their training. As you can imagine, it’s not every day you see a fourth degree black belt doing extravagant kicks while walking around the neighborhood. Before long, local kids were piled alongside the driveway in awe of Travis and Michelle beating up a punching bag.

Before long, the kids had inched their way up the driveway and Travis had invited them inside to train with him. It started out with a few, then grew to 15, then there were sixty kids in his garage training martial arts.

Travis and Michelle’s home was in an at risk community and while he was training the neighbor kids there was a problem with mailboxes being “tagged” with spray paint. One day on the mats Travis pulled the kids aside and told them, “You need to find out who’s doing this and put a stop to it.”

That’s when one of the boys raised his hand and said, “That was me sensei, and training here with you I realized there are better ways to spend my time.”

This was the ah-ha moment for Travis and Michelle. They realized martial arts was such an incredible way for kids to pour their energy into a positive way of learning and discipline. Flash forward a few years down the road and they’re now the proud directors of Project Dojo, a 501 (c) (3) non profit established to help shape the mind of Albuquerque’s youth around martial arts training.

Overcoming Discomfort on the Mats

The majority of my day was spent rolling around on the mats learning basic skills, and then turning around in order to teach those skills to young students.

The first group of kids flocked in and seemed to be amazed there was a camera crew and an additional instructor on site. Remember when you were a kid, how excited you were when the high school students came into your class to take pictures for the year book? I think it was kind of like that.

The students lined themselves up when the time came and the class began with stretching. After stretching the students began practicing their basic front kicks, side kicks, and then back kicks. With every new kick Travis would make his way over to where I was standing. He’d pull me aside and say, “We only teach what we know. So put your right foot forward, stand like this, and kick me.”

“Aya!” I gave my best kick.

“Good. Now go shape the minds of our youth.”

That’s it? I’m barely novice and it’s up to me to give positive reinforcement to the kids? I was nervous, and worried one of the parents would have seen my wimpy kick and ask for their money back from the class. You mean you’re letting that guy help teach my kids?

As it turns out, I wasn’t a terrible teacher. Most of the kids already knew the standard kicks pretty well, so all I had to do was go around, pay attention to them, and let them know they were doing an awesome job. After ten or fifteen minutes of watching the same kicks, I could actually tell when one of the more inexperienced kids was having difficulty. I was shocked that I was actually able to provide some kind of real value to these kids.

I had to leave my comfort zone in order to walk on those mats and try something I’d never done before. I then had to leave my comfort zone again in order to walk around and help teach the kids. Both of these situations gave me a choice, to either stand complacent or jump in and give myself the opportunity to fail.

I jumped in headfirst. I wasn’t graceful, my kicks weren’t all powerful. But I knew I had to start my first job off the right way. The right way is not allowing fear to take control of me and tell me I might embarrass myself or kick like a girl.

More importantly, there were kids who could use my help. If I was too selfish and worried about my own dilemmas then I wouldn’t be able to be there for them when they needed me. I had a greater purpose outside of myself, and it was just the push I needed.

“Heath, You’re Going to Take the Adult Class.”

By this time I’ve been up and at it all day long. I’m starting to feel more comfortable on the mats and helping the kids. I’ve watched the same kicks over and over, and had Travis teach me them several times. But now a new challenge has come up, Travis wants me to take the adult class.

Really? I was unsure and knew my limits. I can do it, I thought to myself. I’m here, I’m at a martial arts studio. How often do you get this kind of opportunity?

“I’ll do it,” I told him.

After watching basic stretches and kicks all day, I felt confident I could at least hang with that portion of the class. What I wasn’t prepared for was the ridiculous workout I was about to endure. I scanned the room and noticed a few men in their sixties and women in their mid to late forties.

I got this.

I'm wiped
I’m wiped

45 minutes later and I’m holding back the vomit that’s crawling up the back of my throat. It’s our last station of sit ups and I haven’t had this hard of a workout since middle school athletics. I have a newfound respect for all things martial arts. My body is going to punch me in the face tomorrow morning.

Hourly Worker Spotlight

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Lawrence about to kick me.

Lawrence, 2nd degree black belt

Lawrence is second in charge teaching students at Project Dojo. At a young age he was introduced to martial arts and had to work different jobs in order to pay for attending classes. “I’ll be doing this the rest of my life.” He told me during our sit down interview.

Kayla, ballerina in training, yoga teacher, and teacher

Kayla teaching me yoga.
Kayla teaching me yoga.

Kayla recently returned from Thailand where she was teaching English as a second language. Her dream is to become a ballerina, however for the time being she’s teaching yoga at Project Dojo in order to make ends meet.

Veronica, non profit Zumba instructor and full-time clerk at hospital


Veronica works full-time at a local hospital and donates the rest of her time to teaching Zumba at Project Dojo. Her paycheck is donated to IFCR (International Foundation for CDK5L Research), a disease her younger brother has suffered with his entire life.

What I Learned From Spending a Day Working as an Assistant Martial Arts Instructor


Your comfort zone will lie to you.

 Most of the day I felt out of my comfort zone. I know zilch about martial arts and I was around people who live and breathe everything tae kwon do. I was afraid they would reject me, because I lacked the knowledge. Instead, they embraced my curiosity and used it as an opportunity to teach me. My comfort zone said, “Heath, just stay reserved and follow along.” My intuition told me to jump in, be willing to make mistakes, and they will love you for it. I decided to roundhouse my comfort zone and couldn’t have made a better choice. Life happens outside of your comfort zone, believe that.

You will learn more by saying “I don’t know”

There were several opportunities where Travis or Michelle said something I had absolutely no idea about. I could have nodded along and let them think I had a clue of what they were talking about, but instead I told them I didn’t know. I had to say it a lot. Sometimes they laughed, in good taste, but they were always okay with explaining things through. Because of my willingness to admit that “I didn’t know” something, I learned so much more throughout the day.

There are few things more rewarding than making a difference in a kid’s life.

Working with the kiddos
Working with the kiddos

This is a personal opinion, however I’ve went years without really being involved in the life of any youth. I forgot the feeling of having a child look up to you. It’s an incredible sensation to know that you truly can make a difference in a person’s life.

I had a mother of one of the boys email me a week or so after Project Dojo. She told me her son was wondering if I was going to come back and teach more. It was the best feeling. I think it feels so good because kids are authentic, they don’t really have ulterior motives unless they are somehow bribing you to get candy or a day off from school. When they say something, they mean it.

Don’t teach, what you don’t first master yourself.

Travis and Lawrence emphasized to me the importance of this. It applies to so much outside of martial arts and it’s really an internal choice. It makes me think more about what I’m about to write about, if I feel it’s a subject where I still have a lot of room to grow, then maybe instead of writing about it I can work on fixing it in the privacy of my own life. It makes a difference when you teach something you really know about. You’re teaching for the right reasons, instead of just a false sense of pride.

There’s always a bigger picture.

When you’re teaching a kid on the mats, you’re not just teaching him how to do a roundhouse kick. You’re teaching him about life. You’re teaching him patience with learning a new skill. You’re teaching him attitude, and showing him or her how to be a better person. No matter what skill you’re helping with, there always seems to be a larger application.