Nicole Gaskell has experienced a ton of scary situations, from receiving roofies to witnessing her mother being accosted in a mall bathroom. The Phoenix resident wants to ensure young people in the Valley stay safe, founding nonprofit Alert & Aware America in 2011, which teaches schoolchildren self-defense techniques, as well as works with other nonprofits. The 29-year-old from Cortland, N.Y. uses her military experience and martial arts training in her courses, and she also teaches Self-Defense 101 with her mom (also a self-defense instructor) at Scottsdale Community College. Read on to hear more about the experiences that inspired her to teach self-defense to others, as well as to hear five reasons why Gaskell loves living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
The weather. Everyone always said it was a gorgeous place to live, and I always had a problem with the cold and never with heat. I love the outdoors, and my mom wanted to move here. I checked it out and moved here after I found a job.
I was born in Cortland, New York, near Syracuse. I went to Niagara University and got my Bachelor’s degree in marketing and a minor in military science. I went to Germany with the military and lived there for a few years before moving to Arizona in September 2006.
What got you interested in wanting to do work with the military?
I had done ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) in college because I loved working out and loved the history and learning about leadership styles. I did a basic camp in Fort Knox, Kentucky and loved that and wanted to go to Germany after college since I had the opportunity from being in ROTC.
What was your typical week in Germany like?
I was working with a deployed unit, the 72nd Signal command, and when I was working with them, I was the deployment specialist. I’d organize big name concerts like Staind or Aerosmith when they came to perform for the troops. I would help plan the deployments themselves and work with people on base, making sure there was enough security and families were OK. It was a lot of fun.
How did you get interest in teaching self-defense?
My mom got accosted when she was with me and my brothers, when we were all under the age of 6. There were three of us kids, and we were in a mall, and she took us to the bathroom. Some man locked her in there, and she didn’t know what to do. She was scared but got lucky — he asked if anyone else was in there, and she lied and said, “Yes, there’s a woman in the back stall.” He went to check, and she ran out with us. After that, she started doing martial arts and then got us all into it. I took Jun Fan Gung Fu, Muay Thai, Kali, Western Boxing and other various types of martial arts. It’s made my entire family who we are today.
Also, I had an experience where I was given a date rape drug in college. I was staying at a hotel for a bachelorette party in Canada, and I hadn’t even had a full glass of wine. I got really light-headed and dizzy and ended up dropping on the ground on the way to my room. I was taken to the hospital, and I had been given roofies. It could have turned out a lot worse — thank goodness it didn’t!
Why are martial arts beneficial for people to get into?
It gives you confidence you wouldn’t have otherwise. I know I can get out of a situation if I really need to. And many people feel it promotes bullying — it doesn’t. It helps kids to control their emotions and their anger.
What made you want to start Alert & Aware America?
After helping my mom with her business (Caution Unlimited), I thought it was awesome, and I should do it myself. There’s a need for it. A lot of parents may not be able to send their kids to a martial arts academy or have the time for it, and it’s not covered in schools, usually — and shouldn’t be if they don’t know how to cover it properly. I see a need for it in schools because of bullying, threats on the way to and leaving school, online attacks, just life in general. It’s teaching kids that bullying is wrong and the right way to deal with it and who to talk to. It’s a confidence-builder. It promotes awareness and proactive thinking.
Are there any memorable moments from your trainings?
One school I went to had a girl whose mom was accosted while she was sitting in the back seat. He had held a knife to her mom’s throat, and this girl is forever scarred and has become withdrawn after having a really extroverted personality. We went to that school and talked about stranger danger and self-defense, but on an older kid scale. It’s not about not trusting anybody — it’s about trusting the right people and trusting your intuition. It’s very situation-specific, too.
What made you go the nonprofit route?
I thought it was needed. At first, I thought everyone was going to want to help and donate, but it’s actually really hard to find sponsorships. It’s a labor of love. Hearing stories about how kids didn’t know certain things, but what we taught them saved their lives, is meaningful. It also helps with kids’ attitude in general.
What is your goal with Alert & Aware America?
I want to work with more nonprofits, such as women’s groups and senior centers. I also want to get into schools across the country and will be teaching in Minnesota and New York soon.
What’s the typical presentation like?
I’ll explain the high school juniors and seniors seminars. They have a ton of personality and are getting ready to go to college and move away from their parents. I separate the guys and girls. We talk about sexual assault, we go over physical defense and have them practice on each other. We cover verbal self-defense and being aware of your surroundings. With teenagers, we also go over online safety along with a multitude of other topics.
What are some basic tips you have for people who are being verbally abused?
The chance you’re going to run away from someone who really wants to get you is pretty slim. You really need to trust your intuition – both women and men have it! If someone is bothering you, you need to let them know. I had someone at the grocery store parking lot look at me the wrong way. After I put my groceries in, he stuck his foot in the car door and put himself in-between the door. I told him I was going to use my TASER, and he said he had wanted some money.
Another time at a grocery store, some man smaller than me asked for my purse. I said, “No,” and he started grabbing my arm and shirt, and I threatened to hurt him with a weapon. He called me crazy and ran away. It’s all about exuding confidence and being aware of what’s around you. I was harassed both of those times because I was distracted, once with full arms of bags and the other on the phone with my mom.
Are there ways people can strengthen their intuitions?
I honestly think it’s a confidence thing and trusting yourself. I stopped a man one time who was making a woman uncomfortable at a bus stop. I told him I was going to call the police, and he left. I talked to the woman, and she said he was touching her and making her uncomfortable, but she didn’t have the confidence to stop him.
What are some ways to strengthen your confidence?
I think staying calm is huge. Normal human reaction is to freak out a little bit, but try to keep it calm — that’s a confidence-booster in itself, because chances are good your assailant is going to be nervous and jittery. If you react differently than they expect, it will throw them off. In police ridealongs I’ve done, I’ve heard if someone so much as makes eye contact, they can help stop a situation. Be aware of your surroundings, and if you’re at a store, ask someone to walk with you back to your car if you feel uncomfortable.
How else can people protect themselves from danger?
I recommend carrying a whistle, because some people lose their voices in times of danger, and whistles attract a lot of attention. I tell kids not to yell, “Help!” because that happens all the time. People need a call to action — tell people to call 911 instead of making them confused about what to do, and those are words that scare your assailant. And most importantly – take a self-defense class! Be prepared!
How do you feel about people carrying weapons?
With any weapon, you should know how to use it. Also, weapons are equated to any type of technology — they can work at any time or fail at any time. Or, the person could be on so many drugs, they’re not going to feel anything. Every situation is different. I carry a TASER. It’s non-lethal, and I’d have no problem shooting it at someone who’s coming after me. I would have second thoughts about shooting or stabbing someone because that’s lethal. I don’t recommend pepper spray, because it’s going to come back at you and hinder your ability to get away from the person. To me, weapons should be used as a backup to any self-defense practice.
What are some of the most common dangerous situations people could face, and how should they react to them?
The first one is home invasions. You have to be cognizant to lock your doors and lock your windows. A lot of times people who come in have weapons on them — don’t trust people who say they might know someone who lives there. You can talk to a person through your closed door and thank them for their concern, but get on the phone with 9-1-1 ASAP.
Walking at night by yourself can also be dangerous. It’s important to be aware of your surroundings, and hold something that could be used as a weapon, such as a pen or keys. Always go for the face or eyes. Criminals want easy targets, so if you’re fighting back, they’re going to want to go elsewhere.