Grandmaster Rick Barber has black belts in six different styles of martial arts and has been offering free classes to children for nearly two decades. His hope is to encourage young people to always do their best in class and throughout their lives.
The Jackson native wasn't much older than the children he teachers when he started taking martial arts classes. Barber said he started lessons after a group of boys beat him up, but that's not why he stuck with it.
"Then when I got into karate, my instructor, he taught me it's not about revenge. It wasn't about beating people up," said Barber. "So, the reason I got into it wasn't the reason I remained into it. I really grew to love the teachings and the trainings that it gives."
Barber said his childhood martial arts training gave him the discipline to go on to become a Navy medic then after leaving the military, a registered nurse. He said the most valuable lesson he learned in those classes was to have compassion.
"I couldn't always afford martial arts classes, so the instructor that I had didn't charge for the classes," Barber said. "I wanted to really give back the way it was given to me, so I made it into more of a ministry than anything."
Barber is president of Combat Academy, an organization which each week offers free classes to children in Gulfport. He said the martial arts helps to discourage bullying and encourages physical fitness.
"Mississippi has one of the highest obesity rates in kids. Martial arts is something they can do year round. It's not a seasonal thing, so they can train," Barber said. "I want to pass that on to them. Be proud of who you are. Work. Train hard. Stay in shape, and love life."
Another major part of Barber's life is his faith. He is also a youth minister at Greater Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church where he teaches a weekly Bible study. For Black History Month, he's having the young people conduct interviews with the senior citizens in the congregation.
"I think we need to be personal with our heroes. Dr. King and some of the other Civil Rights icons are great places to start, but we don't want to stop there," Barber said. "They have people inside their circle, inside their church, inside this community who have given a lot to the community as well. I think when we put a face and a personality with it and these kids sit down and talk to these people versus reading about someone in a history book, it makes it more personal."
Barber's hope is that the time he invests with his students in church and in class will inspire them to pass on what they learn to others, just like he is doing.
"When we get students and we start training students, we let them know my job and my mission is not make you into a black belt. My mission is to make you into a teacher," Barber said. "Getting a black belt is a good personal goal, but it's good for you and you only. When you become a teacher, that means what I gave to you, you're going to pass on to others. That's my expectation, that what I give to them that they transfer and give it away as well. "
Barber said Combat Academy also offers classes in four other states.