Fighting was Martin Chisholm’s salvation, so now this 52-year-old ex-Marine is teaching a newer generation of troubled teens to fight to succeed.
“I help them find the warrior in them,” says Chisholm, who owns the Chisholm Academy of Self-Defense in Stratford, Conn. “And that allows me to be alive, to have some self-worth.”
Chisholm grew up in a tough section of the Bronx in New York City, and he bore a double disadvantage. “My mother was white and my father was African-American,” he explains. “I was very picked on. Fighting gave me some protection. And it boosted my self-esteem. So I pass those skills on to other kids now.”
Boxing, kick-boxing and karate were all parts of Chisholm’s arsenal by the time he joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1980. His platoon saw combat in Beirut, although he missed much of it for medical reasons, so he emerged without many of the physical and emotional scars of so many of this nation’s warriors.
But he didn’t escape entirely.
“Coming out of the Marine Corps, I went through my own period of drinking, drugging and partying,” he says. But his father, also a former Marine and by then in recovery just north of the Big Apple in Connecticut, intervened.
“About 25 years ago, my dad came to New York, took a look at my lifestyle, and told me I needed to get a fresh start. I began going to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings and recovery houses with my dad.”
Chisholm attended St. Michael’s College in nearby Vermont and became certified in adolescent drug addiction. Then he headed over to Bridgeport, Conn., to work with teens. “Bridgeport was a needy place, filled with gangs and drugs, so I fit right in,” he says.
But it was also a challenging place for a guy with his own addictions. “Spending a lot of time partying was not helpful to a marriage or to a job, so I finally decided I didn’t want to do that,” he says. “Then as I went through different AA meetings around the area, I discovered that the world of alcoholism was huge and it was filled with all kinds of people: lawyers, businessmen, politicians, legislators and judges.”
Today, Chisholm has been clean for a quarter-century and sober for more than 16 years. He has been married three times and has eight children, ranging in age from 1 to 31 years old.
His original youth center evolved into a martial arts studio in 1994 and more recently into a full-fledged gym. “And I go into prisons and reform schools to talk with kids about fighting and about gangs,” he says.
One of his constant messages is about sobriety, but he knows he needs to downplay it a bit so as not to alienate his audience. “I don’t want to blackball alcohol, but I do want to blackball alcohol abuse and bad behavior,” he says. “I want to teach these kids to manage or sidestep all their hurdles.”
Some of the kids in his gym come from productive families, he says, but most of them are at-risk kids from the streets. If they can’t pay, that’s generally not a problem—he’ll find a way to let them earn their way in.
Sponsored jointly by the Stratford Police Department, he has created a program called “Our Pal Boxing” for kids aged 6 to 21. One of its missions is to help instill core values in these kids, things like focus, respect, self-discipline, self-confidence, goal-setting and perseverance.
“Martin understood our desire to do much more for our kids, so it’s been a great private-public partnership” says Stratford Police Chief Patrick Ridenhour. “It’s a great way for kids to see that officers are only human behind their badges and their guns, so we have officers in there working with the kids too.”
In addition, Chisholm helps train the police department SWAT team, says Ridenhour.
“Personally, I just love the guy,” the chief adds. “When he promises something, he’ll move heaven and earth to get it done. He doesn’t give up on anyone or anything. And we’re already seeing results of this program in our kids.”