The Heroes In Waiting origin story is a winding path from tragedy to teamwork and triumph
Tucked along a quiet, winding street just a few miles north of I-40 in Midwest City, Oklahoma, sits a fairly unremarkable cinder-block building. It has a parking lot, a tree or two, and an unassuming sign painted on the side that reads “Century Martial Arts.”
Since the company’s founding in 1976, the building has evolved into a concrete patchwork of add-ons and expansions that now constitute 650,000 square feet of made-in-America manufacturing awesomeness. Its rows-upon-rows of industrial sewing machines; seemingly endless, Indiana-Jones-esque warehouse, stacked floor-to-ceiling with thousands of martial arts SKUs; and bustling shipping docks together make up the largest manufacturer of martial arts gear in the world.
It’s the kind of place you’d expect every gi (karate uniform) in the original Karate Kid movie – and all the ones worn in the current Netflix hit series Cobra Kai – to be manufactured. And they are. It’s not the kind of place you’d expect a world-class anti-bullying and peace-building program to be birthed. But it was.
Before Heroes In Waiting began here, it began somewhere else: in Murray County, Georgia, with the tragic death of a vibrant 17-year-old kid named Tyler Long. After years of experiencing relentless bullying behavior at the hands of his classmates, in 2009 he took his own life.
“It was a horrible story,” says Michael Dillard, vice president of operations at Century, and the son of Mike Dillard, the company’s founder. Michael was just a 20-year-old college student and working part time at Century when Tyler – who was just one month away from earning his black belt in karate – lost his life. “It really struck home for us,” he says.
The Birth of Heroes In Waiting
Not only did Tyler’s death – and his family’s subsequent court case – shed national light on the deadly effects of bullying behavior, it also rallied the martial arts community, including Century. The result? In collaboration with the Martial Arts Industry Association (MAIA), in 2012 Century developed and distributed the original Heroes In Waiting anti-bullying curriculum, for use in martial arts academies across the U.S.
“Martial arts teaches kids that self-confidence to step in and say something. That’s all it really takes to stop bullying,” says Dillard. “Heroes in Waiting came about to give academy owners curriculum and the tools they need to teach kids to do that, to identify when these situations are happening, how to take steps to intervene, and how to prevail and hopefully save these situations from ever happening.”
And it gave the company a way to put their heart into action. “The ability to impact thousands of academy owners, who then in turn impact even more tens of thousands of students and change their lives every single day, that’s something we really wanted to be a part of.”
Fast forward to 2018. Dillard had gotten wind of a non-profit organization that was just getting started in Oklahoma city, and he arranged a meeting to see if there was any way Century could help. One of the things he brought to the table was the six-year-old Heroes In Waiting curriculum.
“It was well done and very successful in martial arts academies,” recalls the organization’s executive director, Jim Stewart. “We looked through it, looked at the handouts and said, ‘This is really, really good. This is beautiful.’” His team immediately saw the potential…and got to work.
“It was literally in a three-ring binder and hard disks,” says Dillard. “They had the vision to put this into a digital curriculum that academies could consume and work with their students on.”
Within a year the curriculum had been revamped, digitized, and put to work in martial arts academies nationwide.
And then the world changed.
And kids’ worlds changed too. A global pandemic meant they couldn’t go to school anymore, or play team sports, or hang out with their friends. Children faced the upheavals and adjustments of online learning and parents working from home. They faced isolation. Multiple studies reported increases in youth depression and other mental health issues throughout 2020. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that the pandemic had “accelerated worrying trends in child and adolescent mental health, resulting in what it described as a ‘national emergency.’”
Jim knew it was time to take Heroes In Waiting to the next level.
The vision: Expand the program beyond martial arts academies; get it into schools, homes, after-school programs, anywhere it’s needed; and give it away for free.
“We’d heard kids say, ‘We’ve lost ourselves,’” he says. “And that’s what we want to gain back. We want to help them become what they were made to be, and that’s beautiful people expanding their horizons, reaching their dreams, without a bondage that has set them back in life. We want to see them fly.”
And so he went to work again. He collaborated with curriculum specialists to rebuild Heroes In Waiting from the inside out, incorporating new research and currently understood best practices for meeting children’s core needs of safety and belonging. And he began quietly building a local dream team of video producers, graphic designers, story-tellers, and communications professionals – including beloved Oklahoma City personalities Scottie Hines, formerly of KFOR’s In Your Corner, and OKC Thunder basketball hype-man and OKC Fox 25 morning show co-host Malcolm Tubbs.
For Malcolm, being involved with Heroes In Waiting was a no-brainer. “I am someone who just loves to encourage. I love to inspire. I love to uplift. I love to hype people up, to give them a little hope. And that’s what this program does,” he says. “This curriculum can create a small drip that can cause a ripple effect across many different cultures, many different people to have us not feel so divided, but realize we are all one and the same. We’re all friends. We all may have different experiences, but it’s something we can empathize and connect with. We can all be heroes.”
Scottie couldn’t agree more. “I believe Heroes in Waiting is going to help future generations heal and disrupt the intergenerational trauma cycle that has kept so many of us stuck, disconnected, and suffering,” he says. “This was an inspired opportunity I wasn’t about to pass up. I have a heart for kids, and I’m deeply committed to helping them learn and shine.”
The best part? The story of Heroes In Waiting has come full circle and arrived back where it began: at that unremarkable building in Midwest City full of remarkable people with remarkable heart. Michael Dillard and his team have walked alongside the development of this newest phase of the life-changing program they birthed a decade ago. In fact, every Heroes In Waiting program video and promotional video was filmed on location in the world-class studios of Century Martial Arts.
“It started with a tragedy, a three-ring binder, and a heart to help kids get through their bullying situation,” says Jim. “Now, full circle, it’s a heart of compassion, it’s a heart of desire to move this into the next generation and beyond.”