Small Success, Big Impact

February 17, 2016

Hilary Achauer

Russella Allison's Monday and Wednesday afternoon classes are filled with kids from Reflections Center in La Mesa, California, a high school for juvenile offenders.

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Russella Allison has strict rules for her 2:00 p.m. Monday and Wednesday class at CrossFit Kivnon in La Mesa, California.

“They can’t sit down. No hands in pockets. They can’t lean against the wall,” Allison said. She doesn’t play music during the warm-up and skill training. The athletes are allowed music during the workout only if everyone follows her rules during the first part of the class.

The rules may seem unusual, but the students aren’t typical CrossFit athletes. Allison's Monday and Wednesday afternoon classes are filled with kids from Reflections Center in La Mesa, California, a high school for juvenile offenders.

Michael Rolan, a deputy probation officer for the school, began bringing the kids to CrossFit Kivnon after looking all over San Diego for a weightlifting program for the kids.

When a kid ends up at Reflections, it means things have not gone well for them in a very long time.

“A lot of our kids have experienced severe trauma,” Rolan said. “They’ve had extreme challenges. They haven’t done well in other schools.”

Rolan knew how much structured exercise could help these kids. He had already instituted a successful running program four years ago; since then the kids have run in more than 40 races, including seven half-marathons.

Rolan approached gyms all over San Diego, looking for a place for the kids to train, and they all turned him down.

“I couldn’t believe how they just completely rejected it,” Rolan said.

Then one of the Reflections staff members asked him if he had tried CrossFit. Rolan pulled up the affiliate finder map on and realized CrossFit Kivnon was right down the street.

The reaction at CrossFit Kivnon was entirely different from the other gyms Rolan visited.

“I’m just shocked at how that community is (at CrossFit), how supportive they are,” Rolan said. “For Kivnon to say, ‘Yeah, just come to our box. You can do it here,’ they haven’t asked for anything.” (Reflections pays a small yearly fee to cover coaching.)

After working out the details, the Reflections students began their twice-weekly workouts in April 2015. It wasn’t long before the CrossFit Kivnon members heard about the program and asked how they could help.

“(The members have) bought them lifters, they’ve bought them workout clothes, because sometimes (the kids) come to me in jeans, not the right clothes, and they’ll take their shoes off and work out barefoot,” Allison said.

Their First Open

Now that the CrossFit Games Open is here, members of CrossFit Kivnon—which include Drug Enforcement Administration agents, law enforcement and military—have stepped up once again by sponsoring six kids, paying for their Open registration fees.

One of those kids is 16-year-old Justin Hernandez.

Hernandez is a sweet boy with a shy smile that grows wider when he talks about CrossFit. Already a fan before he came to Reflections—he subscribes to CrossFit’s YouTube channel—Hernandez was excited to try CrossFit himself.

Hernandez started in August 2015. “I thought it was pretty insane,” he said about his first workout.

Soon, though, the Monday and Wednesday classes weren’t enough.

“(Rolan) told me there was a free class on Saturday,” Hernandez said, “but I wanted open gym (on Sunday) because I wanted to work on my own lifts. I go pretty much every Sunday, except when I don’t have a ride,” he said.  

“It’s been a really good thing for him,” Allison said about open gym, “because it gives him a place to go on Sundays that isn’t a bad influence. For a few hours on Sunday he’s away from that bad influence and he has something to do that’s positive,” she said.

“He’s a really awesome kid,” Rolan said about Hernandez. “Very humble, quiet, and calm. We were learning how to snatch, and he had really good form. I wondered, ‘how does he have such good form?’ and that’s when I found out he was coming on Sunday on his own.”

Hernandez is excited about the Open. He researched other 16 year olds in the world—his competition.

“Those guys are freakish athletes,” Hernandez said. He’s been working on improving his cardio in anticipation of the Open workouts.

Starting on February 25, Hernandez and five other kids from Reflections will complete each of the Open workouts on Monday, during their normal 2:00 p.m. class. They’ll submit a score each week, playing along with teens from around the globe.

“These kids … haven’t seen a lot of success,” Rolan said. “They’ve seen a lot of failure. They come here, it’s a small environment, where they can actually see some successes, and hopefully that will snowball into bigger things,” he said.

Hernandez is already thinking of bigger things.

“I go back to court in July,” Hernandez said. “If I’m doing well here I can graduate from Reflections a little bit before my court date. It’s a 90-something percent chance of getting off probation,” he said.

As for his future plans, “I want to … become a coach,” Hernandez said, “I want to open a gym, later down the road.”

He stopped and thought for a moment.

“I want to compete in Strongman, CrossFit—I want to do it all.”

The CrossFit program costs Reflections $2,000 each year, which they raise through donations from the San Diego County Probation Officer’s Association and other community groups. If you’d like to help keep the program going, contact Michael Rolan at

Photos courtesy of Rachel Martinez.