TARPON SPRINGS – Fort Valor may sound like the name of a military installation or a war movie.
But in Tarpon Springs, it is not just a cool name.
It’s a cool concept.
Founded by Tampa entrepreneur Alesssna “Allie” Sakezles, the 6,000-square-foot facility at 601 Hope St. is a nonprofit recreational community center catering exclusively to veterans, active military and their families.
“The Fort Valor community center will be a 100 percent free-to-use community hub and resource center for reserve, retired, veteran and active duty military members and their families,” Sakezles said a few days prior to the facility’s Nov. 10 grand opening.
“Service members visiting the center will have access to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training, a weight room, a video game lounge, a garden, board games, music therapy, art therapy, career training, assistance utiliz-ing military benefits, peer-to-peer counseling and recreational activities like coordinated fishing excur-sions.”
Sakezles, who along with her husband, Christopher, founded a synthetic cadaver company that was fea-tured on episodes of “Shark Tank” and “Mythbusters,” said she came up with the Fort Valor concept after taking a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class several months ago.
“I was taking Jiu-Jitsu lessons and the instructor wanted to build a gym that catered to vets, but it didn’t work out,” she explained. “But I thought it too good of an idea not to do something, because I be-lieve it’s something that needs to be done.”
After her real estate agent found the former commercial building near the southwest end of the Sponge Docks, Sakezles knew it was the right fit for her vision.
“When we found this building, I knew it was perfect for what we wanted to do, with the wide-open com-mon area and a bunch of side rooms we can use for a variety of things,” she said. “Plus, I love this area. It’s beautiful.”
Sakezles was quick to point out that she is not military but “everyone we gainfully employ will be mili-tary. I will be the only civilian working here and I will never accept a paycheck,” and she envisions Fort Valor as a place in the community where veterans and their families can congregate aside from the typi-cal lodge or post.
“I’m a foster child and I can sympathize with being an outsider and like people needing to be with each other,” she said. “VFWs are typically smoke-filled bars, but I thought it was important to have a place where they can get veterans services and be with their families.”
While Fort Valor will offer a wide variety of programs and services, including the use of an office space for veteran’s organizations, Sakezles said the primary focus would be on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
“The main focus of Fort Valor will be on Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which has been proven to reduce the effects of PTSD,” she said, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. “We have a couple of expert Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructors who will be able to demonstrate the many positive effects it can have on your mind as well as your body.”
Indeed Jeff Baughman, Fort Valor’s deputy director and assistant Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor, said in his experience, veterans are often amazed by the powerful effects of the century-old martial art.
“Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is a grappling based martial art with an emphasis on control,” Baughman, who served in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, explained. “The veterans get movement, fitness and calmness when they train, and also a healthy release of aggression.”
Sakezles noted while there are no financial costs associated with Fort Valor, they do require a small pay-back in the form of volunteer time.
“It’s 100 percent free financially, but to be a member you have to volunteer three hours of time per month,” she said. “But it’s not an issue with vets because they want to feel like they’re earning some-thing, not being handed something, and this way, they earn it. This place is for them and they need to take care of it.”
Following two months of renovations and with the grand opening ceremony in the rear view, Sakezles said she’s eager to get the word out, and she’s been encouraged by the support she’s already received from the community.
“We had six or seven local gyms offer us free memberships to give away at our grand opening,” she said. “I think it’s beautiful the way the community is rallying for what we stand for.”
She added they are already planning additional Fort Valor programs and services, but she won’t lose sight of Fort Valor’s main mission.
“We will have family nights and other things, but our main focus is taking care of these guys and helping them take care of each other,” Sakezles said.
For more information on Fort Valor, visit fortvalor.org or call 727-999-3177.