VALDOSTA –– Titletown Wrestling Academy has partnered with Valdosta Church of the Nazarene for a third straight year of expansion of its program.

The two entities came together for its re-opening celebration as part of "Celebration Saturday" event. Those in attendance were treated to a spread of barbecue prepared by Pastor Lonnie Grant as well as macaroni and cheese, baked beans, potato salad, deviled eggs, broccoli and cheese casserole and other dishes. Not only that, there were six different flavors of homemade ice cream to choose from.

The night concluded with a corn hole tournament and fireworks in the Valdosta night sky.

"We help each other," Grant said of partnering with Titletown Wrestling. "We have a room that was a storage unit and someone that attends our church, their children attend (Titletown Wrestling Academy) and they were looking for a new place to go. So we just introduced them to a room and they said if it's big enough, then they would come.

"They've added a lot to it. Several businesses have contributed a lot of free labor, if you will. The partnership has been amazing. We love doing stuff with them and they love doing stuff with us because it's for the betterment of the kids. I believe our church is trying to reach out into an area that is hurting for mentors and leaders and anything we can do to help them be successful, that's what we want to do."

After everyone had a chance to eat and partake in refreshments, Titletown Wrestling coach Antonio DelVecchio allowed youths to come onto the freshly-laid mats for wrestling instruction.

DelVecchio, an 18-year member in the United State Air Force, has been coaching wrestling on and off in Valdosta for the past seven years. After plying his trade in wrestling in New York, DelVecchio joined the Air Force and has lived in Valdosta for the past 14 years.

"I love the community I've been involved with since I've been at Moody Air Force Base," DelVecchio said. "It's something for me to give back to the kids and watch them develop and grow and be able to do great things as they grow up.

"This is our third year being open that we're expanding. We started small. The big thing about this is that we're partnering with a community that's done very well with us, that's allowing us to give back to the community. We do it because we've noticed that there's a lack of things that's there for the kids and the importance of the direction we can provide and the life skills that they can learn with a sport like wrestling only emboldens that opportunity for us to be involved more with the community."

Grant, who admits to being an outside-the-box thinker, believes in allowing his church to be inclusive and welcoming to other avenues in the community that need space to put on events. From Sunbelt Wrestling Entertainment to the Valdosta High School Jazz Band, Grant doesn't believe in limiting his church's doors to only being open on Sundays.

"We believe that we've got a big building and it doesn't need to sit empty Monday through Saturday," Grant said. "If we use it twice a week, it seems a little silly and redundant. So why not offer a building to people that need it? We've held Valdosta High School Jazz Band concerts here. We have a home school association that comes once a week –– they have over 120 kids that come into this place. We believe that we may not have a lot of resources but if I have a resource in a building, I believe the community should be involved with it –– that's my ministry philosophy."

An essential part of what DelVecchio and Grant want to accomplish lies in youth empowerment.

DelVecchio feels that by empowering youths to see that they can do all things and be responsible for what happens in their lives, he can play a role in making them better on the mat and in life.

"A phrase in our vocabulary we can't use is 'I can't'," DelVecchio said. "A big thing that we say is, 'I can. I will. No excuses.' That's a big motto of mine. Being in the military, there's never been an obstacle that we're not expected to get over –– we always have to get over things.

"With a sport like wrestling, they have to learn to get over adversity –– whether it be in a match or life, in general. It could be in school –– they may not do well on a test, but they understand, 'What do I need to do to get better to be able to ace the next test?' If they lose a match on the wrestling mat, they have to figure out what they have to do. It's not directly on me because there's only two people on the wrestling mat, I just coach in the corner. They have to take it upon themselves to really push past that threshold and know they can do anything they set their minds to."

Like DelVecchio, Grant sees a glaring need for mentors and leadership in the community. With Grant's church supplying the venue, Saturday's re-opening celebration is another way for Titletown Wrestling to not only reach and lift up the youth in Valdosta, but to assist families that come from differing circumstances.

"In my life, I grew up in a very deep-rooted Christian home," Grant said. "I had a lot of friends that did not have opportunities simply because they have a single parent. Now there's nothing wrong with a single parent, but a single parent kills themselves trying to provide for their families. That's great. That's wonderful. But I think we need other people to kind of help in and come alongside. Not to take over, not to show up, but to partner with them and come alongside them and encourage them and lift them up. 

"We're here to help the families. We learn a lot from the kids and it's fun. I was in youth ministry for 25 years and just listening to kids, it just cracks me up. But some of them are hurting and they just want adult figures that care and I think that's what we're providing."

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