By: Chrissy Natoli
Damion DiGrazia ALM ’14 and the 2021 recipient of the HEAA Military-Veteran Distinguished Service Award is the founder of Santa’s Knights which is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that aims to bring free martial arts programs to underprivileged communities in New York City. Along with the martial arts program, hundreds of children receive gifts through the Santa’s letters program. Read on to learn more about what Santa’s Knights means to Damion.
Tell us a little about your background.
I mostly grew up in a state of poverty, and I personally understand the limiting factors that socioeconomic under-privilege can have on someone’s development and growth. Ultimately, through a lot of luck and some hard work, I became a military veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and went on to graduate Columbia University for my undergrad and then on to Harvard for my grad school. After that fortunate string of events, I ended up working on Wall Street at Morgan Stanley, where the higher I climbed the corporate chain, the more I was drawn to being of service to the world. No matter how far up the mountain of success I seemed to climb, it was (and still is) impossible for me to forget about all those that weren’t as lucky as I was and everything that has gotten me to where I am now from where I first started. In actuality, I am drawn more to being of service to the world the more successful I become – it’s like a gravity I cannot escape, nor would want to. I feel especially drawn to give back, after having been so fortunate at the turn of events in my life.
What inspired you to start Santa’s Knights?
Santa’s Knights, a 501c3 non-profit, was born out of my constant hunger to be of service to the world, and started as a Santa’s letters program that, furthermore, exposed underprivileged people to martial arts and fitness programming when they came to get their gifts. The mission and application have since grown and evolved.
My affinity for a Santa’s letters program came about when I was a young child and my mom asked me to write a Santa’s letter (through Operation Santa with the U.S. Post Office) for a gift for myself at Christmas one year. She said to ask for two separate things – just in case the giver couldn’t get one, they could get the other. I asked for an alarm clock, so that I could get myself up in the morning so my mom wouldn’t have to wake me up when I went to school, or a radio, since we didn’t have a TV or radio or anything in the apartment – that way we could have some sound in the home. Come Christmastime, I received the gift and it was an alarm clock radio – a gift I didn’t even realize I wanted. It wasn’t an expensive item, but it was that act of kindness and thoughtfulness, that someone put in to think through the perfect gift for me, from what I had originally asked for, that stuck with me.
When I was on Wall Street, and was looking to be more of service to the world, I remembered that Santa’s letter gift and went to the U.S. Post Office to start adopting letters from people in similar situations as I had been in. I started with 10 letters and then doubled each year until I ended up with 53 letters adopted for one Christmas. Though the Post Office program was great, I was spending quite a bit of money on postage for all the gifts to get sent out, and also felt that I didn’t get to have any real connection to the kids and families. I then decided to start my own Santa’s letters program to tackle those specific challenges. Moreover, recently, I’ve been working towards creating a more technology-oriented, scalable platform solution to further grow our impact. Nonetheless, we now have hundreds of families from NYC and across the U.S. that reach out to us, and it grows dramatically every year. The letters can be adopted at https://www.santasknights.org/letters-to-santa or you can also donate on the same site.
A fulfilled Santa’s letter can be an amazing, uplifting experience for those on the receiving end (and also on the giving end), but I also wanted to have a more ongoing (all year long) impact on the communities that we serve, so I decided to offer free martial arts and fitness programming. This mainly stemmed from martial arts and fitness having been a main part of my recovery from a debilitating injury I sustained while on active duty with the U.S. Air Force. The injury led me down a path of prescription painkillers and drugs, drinking, a sedentary lifestyle, and finally homelessness, as I tried to deal with the injury and its long-lasting effects. Eventually, some years later, I decided to risk further injury and just started exercising very aggressively, to hopefully at least have a few good years until I ended up worse off than before. Counterintuitively, as my fitness level grew dramatically through the intense exercise regimen, I ended up feeling much better. I sobered up, and have been sober for over 16 years now, and I continue to help change people’s health and mental wellbeing outcomes through equitable martial arts and fitness programming.
As I tried to bring programming to people, I saw how exclusionary most health and fitness programming is, mainly because of high costs. In a world where an average person is struggling to pay rent and basic expenses, how can we expect them to also spend what might be the cost of their food for the week on one fitness class? It’s already tough to find the motivation to work out regularly, but with the added burden of cost, it’s much tougher. Plus, when someone starts a regular workout program, they eat healthier to recover, sleep better, be part of positive communities, and thus positively change many health outcomes for themselves. I decided to try and help empower the creation of more free health and fitness classes for everyone, as a preventive health measure, rather than the modern cure-all of interventional medicine such as surgeries and medications.
After years of teaching and promoting free martial arts and fitness programming, mainly in the Harlem area of NYC, I could see our own, and other non-profits and individuals, struggles at getting new people to join the programs by challenges in getting the word out there in such a competitive landscape versus the for-profit companies. I decided to approach this from a scalable, technology solution viewpoint and came up with a new platform we will be launching soon that will help non-profits and other individuals who want to teach free martial arts and fitness classes, to be able to connect to clients who are looking to find free classes as well. The platform is called Equisym, for “Equi-“ being equity in health outcomes and “-sym” for symbiosis, where those wanting to teach can match with those wanting to be taught. We are working with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), who has built the technology platform from scratch, and with Amazon where they have given us free web hosting with AWS for the first 2 years of our launch. We also have deep gratitude for Bankers without Borders, a Grameen Foundation program, for their helping to connect us to their pool of great “skillanthropy” resources. We should be launching Equisym within the next month or two.
What does this charity mean to you? Why is the work so powerful?
The main two missions of Santa’s Knights were born out of my own personal experiences where underprivilege and tragedy were the seeds that grew into compassion and evolution. Santa’s Knights focuses on scalable technology approaches to social challenges, which helps us in our quest to impact as many people, effectively, as possible. Both of our programs, our Santa’s letters & martial arts and fitness programs, help connect people in need with people who would like to help. This helps empower the people and institutions that want to help by better connecting them with those they wish to serve, and vice versa. One program brings a special type of holiday joy to individuals in need, while the other can help members change their lives entirely by focusing on their health and mental well-being by connecting to and participating in accessible, and socio-economically inclusive martial arts and fitness programs.
What do you see for the future of Santa’s Knights? What impact do you hope to have on the people you reach?
Equisym is going to be a game-changer for Santa’s Knights, helping us move from the amount of impact that we can make with just our own martial arts and fitness programming (such as our flagship free and fun martial arts and fitness program, Gladiators NYC), and instead help empower every organization and individual out there with a similar mission to connect with new stakeholders and end-clients. The sky is the limit with Equisym’s platform, and its launch and development over the next few years are going to be incredibly impactful, especially for Equisym’s staff, stakeholders, and end-clients. The Santa’s letters program is growing into its own scalable technology solution as well, and our aim is to be the largest Santa’s letters program in the next 10 years.
The impact that Equisym will have on the free martial arts and fitness ecosystem is to make it all more easily accessible, transparent, and ultimately more effective with the centralizing of it all for the industry’s shared customer base. This will benefit everyone involved, from the institutions and individual teachers to the client-base by more equitably being able to be part of the health and fitness world. Our Santa’s letters program most definitely uplifts those that receive gifts, but also those that give the gifts as well. Though a few small presents might not completely change a child or individual’s yearslong, everyday life, they can still have a lifetime impact on someone, just as it did on me – an underprivileged child receiving a kind, thoughtful gift, that further made me (that child, but now grown) want to pay it forward, exponentially. If we change even one life in the way that my life was changed, through kind, thoughtful actions, then our mission was well worth it and my life was one well-lived.
If you are inspired by Damion’s story and wish to donate to Santa’s Knights in order to further their mission there are two ways to do so.