Jorge Mendoza bobs from side to side as 9-year-old Oliver Olthoff swings at the punching mitts he's wearing on either hand.

"You've got to slip to the side, slip to the side like this," Mendoza, 26, says as he demonstrates proper fighting stances for Oliver.

One. Two. One. Two.

The boy makes contact with Mendoza's mitts a couple of times before it's the next child's turn. Parents congregate on the outskirts of the boxing ring at Element Gym at St. Paul as Mendoza trains about a dozen children — ranging from 7 to 16 — the basics of the sport. For the last year, Mendoza has spent two hours every Saturday training children with Down syndrome and other cognitive disabilities.

"The way Jorge connects with these kids, he's a success story," Element Gym owner Dalton Outlaw said. "That proves we need to do more of this."

The sessions are a boon for parents, who say it's one of the few places where their kids don't feel like the odd ones out. When Maura Caldwell's son Benjamin participates in other activities, she said, she feels like she has to keep one eye on him to make sure he's interacting with the other children or that he isn't overstimulated. In Mendoza's ring, as he and helpers wrangle the kids, "we kind of get to exhale here," Maura Caldwell said.

"His willingness and comfort in this chaos is great," she said.

The lessons typically end with Mendoza, wearing a protective suit that covers his torso, dodging the punches of the students. The suit looks a little like an oversized pair of overalls. Every once in awhile, one of the kids lands a blow.

"It doesn't hurt, unless they manage to get a low blow," Mendoza said with a chuckle.

Patrick Murphy, Mendoza's surrogate father, says the lifelong St. Paul resident's ability to connect with kids is his "golden talent."

"He's always engaged with youth," Murphy said. "I couldn't be more proud of what he's become."

Mendoza met Murphy when he was in middle school. Mendoza's mother worked nights, so he would spend evenings watching baseball with Murphy and his wife, Dawn. The two share a love for the New York Yankees.

Mendoza's mother, who was widowed when he was young, remarried just as he was about to start his freshman year at Como Park High. He didn't want to leave his friends, so Mendoza and his mother struck a deal: He would stay with the Murphys during the week and the weekends in Inver Grove Heights with his mother, stepfather and baby sister.

When he showed up to history class with a black eye, his teacher pulled him aside and asked if he had ever considered boxing. It would be a more constructive way to get his aggression out, Mendoza remembers the educator saying.

Mendoza was 17 when he met Outlaw. They bonded immediately.

"Jorge was an athlete," Outlaw said. "He was a natural."

Mendoza began competing on the amateur circuit. His first official fight was at a bar and grill in Shakopee. He lost. A rematch weeks later was his first victory. He fought a few exhibitions before the pandemic shut down competition.

For a while, Mendoza was Dawn Murphy's primary caretaker as she battled illness. She died in 2021.

Mendoza wanted to keep boxing. In 2023, Outlaw asked Mendoza if he'd help teach youth lessons through a partnership Element had begun with the Down Syndrome Association of Minnesota.

Around the same time, Mendoza began climbing the ranks at the Minnesota State Capitol, where he'd spent six years working as a page for House Sergeant-at-Arms Bob Meyerson. An administrative assistant position had also just opened up in the House of Representatives, a full-time gig.

Patrick Murphy is the chief clerk of the state House. He said he kept his distance while Mendoza went through interviews. A few representatives knew how close they were, but Mendoza said he steered clear of Murphy when he was applying for the job. "I wanted to get the job on my own," Mendoza said.

He spends floor sessions running documents and relaying paperwork to House Speaker Melissa Hortman. Mendoza aspires to sit in front of the speaker's chair someday as a legislative clerk and wants to keep up the Sunday trainings at Element.

"I love working with these kids because they have no ego," Mendoza said. "They're just here to have fun."