Martial arts academy earns honor as one of the best agencies to work for

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Nina Chen, left, and Donna Bowton spar during practice at the Aim High Academy of Martial Arts.On Monday night at Beaverton’s Aim High Academy of Martial Arts, black belt candidates run through their paces, hoping to achieve their new ranking within a year.

In addition to the standard requirements, the students are expected to go the extra mile. Not only must they complete 52,000 push ups and an equal amount of sit-ups throughout their training, they must also perform three major acts of kindness to others or to the environment.

The goal, said Dan Sikkens, Aim High’s executive director, is to create a well-rounded martial arts TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Aim High instructor Randle Reeds leads the youngest class in basic martial arts footwork.

With that idea in mind, Oregon Business magazine recently named Aim High as one of the best medium-sized nonprofits to work for in the state, earning a No. 2 spot. That ranking, said Sikkens, “blew my mind.”

Not only is the ranking a step up from last year’s No. 3 spot, but the business jumped from its 2012 small-sized nonprofit category by doubling its employees.

“It came as a pleasant surprise,” Sikkens said of the new ranking, arrived at by surveying more than 5,000 employees from 159 organizations throughout the state.

Sikkens said he believes the practice of martial arts makes a huge impression on any young person willing to join.

Aim High, said Sikkens, works under a philosophy that nobody sits on the bench and that employees should be treated like family.

“If you boil it down, it boils down to ‘people first,’” said Sikkens. “It’s ‘people first,’ absolutely.”

That means that on any given day, visitors might see either young children or several dogs wandering around the academy, all belonging to Aim High employees.

Sikkens, 31, said the academy, housed in a 12,600-square-foot building on Bethany Court, is the only nonprofit martial arts studio in the state and the largest in the nation.

When Sikkens started Aim High in 2005, it was your normal for-profit martial arts studio. That changed in 2009, when the academy received 501(c)3 nonprofit status, becoming an educational facility in the eyes of the IRS. It’s something that has meant Aim High can provide opportunities to help out the community.

“We’ve given away $1 million in financial aid and (to) community charities,” said TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Aim High instructor Jeremy Smith runs sparring drills Monday night with his class of black belt candidates.

The holder of a black belt himself (and now testing for his fifth-degree black belt), Sikkens grew up in Reno before moving to the Portland area in 2000.

A framed photo in the entrance to Aim High Academy of Martial Arts refers to how the organization got its name. Given to Sikkens by his former karate teacher Tom Callos when he was 6 years old, the inscription reads: “Aim High and NEVER, NEVER give up! You will be one of our best Black Belts.”

The last several months have been busy for Aim High, having recently acquired another martial arts school in Gresham, and as of Oct. 1, the Aim High Foundation was established.

Sikkens said within the last year, Aim High has doubled not only its employees from 15 to 30 but its students as well — 450 to 750 — with the Gresham location, adding another 150 students.

Over the years, the academy has created several unique projects and partnerships. Those include the Ignite Project, a program that helps adults with developmental disabilities and kids in foster care, and Aim High has partnered with Compassion First, an international agency located in Beaverton that provides long-term, hope-filled solutions for victims of child sexual trafficking. Each year, Aim High’s Samantha Logan travels to Indonesia to teach martial arts in one of the safe houses there, Sikkens said.

Aim High also teaches an anti-bullying program at both Arco Iris, a Spanish immersion charter school in Beaverton, and Oregon Episcopal School.

Meanwhile, employees also seem to think highly of the academy.

“We’re all best friends here,” Sikkens pointed out.

Cyrus Cross, who has worked at the martial arts studio since 2005, said it has always been his dream to work at a martial arts academy.

Now he’s fulfilled another dream — having become a martial arts stuntman who appeared in episodes of both “Grimm” and “Leverage,” two television programs that have filmed in the Portland area over the past several years.

Cross now teaches “tricking” at the academy, a class he described as break dancing as if it were invented by ninjas.

Christopher Hoskins, another Aim High employee, said the academy is a place where you can find people from all walks of life. Having trained at the academy for the past seven years, both of his parents, who hold black belts, train there as well.

Taylor Berglund, a 12-year-old student at Aim High who takes fusion and Tae Kwon Do classes at the academy, said she has made numerous friends at the martial arts academy,

“I really like it here,” she said. “It’s a family environment.”

Now Sikkens has set his sights on even loftier goals.

“We have dreams of opening a charter school and an outdoor school,” he TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Aim High student Denver Koozer practices front kicks during class at the Beaverton martial arts studio.

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