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Young Champions of America Rising From Ashes of Arson Fire; Company Offers Low-Cost Classes for Kids

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The arson fire of June 14 at the Young Champions of America headquarters burned up every scrap of administrative records and melted scores of awards and trophies amassed over the years. Rory Hood, the company's owner, considered quitting the business "for about an hour." Then he heard the voice of his deceased mother, Bonnie, who started the company in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1952.

"She spoke up in my mind: You never quit. Ever, ever, ever," says Hood, 49.

Three months later, the company is preparing to launch a new semester of karate, dance, soccer, cheerleading and art instruction. Classes start this week. Hood calls his company the "Southwest Airlines" of such programs, appealing to "lower-income-level kids." About 12,000 kids enroll in Young Champions classes in each of its three yearly semesters, Hood says. The classes are held in schools throughout the Phoenix metro area. As our July report on the situation showed, the arson fire rattled untold numbers of Valley kids and their parents.

The crime visited upon the organization was "the most bizarre thing," Hood says. "It still seems like a dream."

According to police, four instructors for the company conspired to torch the Young Champions' former building at 5414 South 40th Street. Josh Robsinson, 28, managed to burn himself to death during the blaze.

Police arrested Jonathan Antonucci, Jeffrey Otto and Moniza Murillo in connection with the arson. Hood says they were all former students who became instructors.

"They were stealing class money," Hood says of the suspects. "We gave these guys a chance. When we found out they were stealing, we continued to offer them a job. We said we'd offer you a payment plan."

Hood believes they may have wanted to start their own business to compete with Young Champions after taking out the company's headquarters.

"These people threw their lives away," he says.

Hood, a former national baton-twirling champion for the University of Arizona, says the community has come together to help keep the company afloat. Insurance couldn't cover everything, he says, but former students and parents of students have chipped in to help pay bills. A friend lent him space in a Tempe office for a few weeks. Now, Young Champions has an office at the Scottsdale Airpark.

"Parents and kids are ecstatic," he says. "A lot of people weren't sure if we were able to survive this thing and pull out of it."

Happy kids whose dreams haven't flamed out because of an arson -- that's something to cheer about.

UPDATE: Click here to read our January 21, 2010, feature article about this case.

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