Karate class challenges spirit, mind, body of disabled students

Posted: Sunday, February 27, 2000

Everyone arrives and prepares for class in the Soldotna classroom. The room, brightly lit with mirrors that line the front wall, harbors students who position themselves on the blue mats in the front of the room.

The room is not the ordinary class -- with desks and a chalkboard. It is a class where students of all ages learn the Japanese system of self-defense called karate.

Corey Green, owner and instructor of Green's Karate, leads the warm-ups. Arms wave in the air, legs kick about, all to a count of one to 10 in Japanese.

"Ichi, nii, san, shii, go, rok, shichi, hachi, kyu, jyu."

Both Daryl Leach and Jim Simons are confident with the moves, the instructor and the surroundings, though both of them have disabilities.

Leach, 19, was born with a learning disability. A senior at Skyview, he swims, bowls, writes stories, works in the school cafeteria and somehow finds time to attend one-hour karate classes four days a week.

Leach started at Green's more than a year and a half ago. Since joining the karate class, he has reached the status of purple belt -- halfway to a black belt -- and shows no signs of stopping.

"I like it a lot," he said with a smile. "Karate has been real important to me."

Green said Leach can perform a move, even after being show that move only one time.

"No challenge is too big," Green said of his pupil, "He is extremely smart."

During class, Green takes the time to work with Leach, and it shows.

Leach moves gracefully with the look of heavy concentration.

Yet when he practices, he does so alone.

Leach spends many evenings practicing his moves at his home in Soldotna. He believes self-discipline means having to practice totally alone.

"Practice, practice, practice makes perfect," Leach chants with a smile.

His hero, from even before starting in Green's class, is Chuck Norris, but he also looks up to action stars such as Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren.

In his spare time, Leach writes stories about the "Adventures of Karate Man." He said he hopes to publish them in the future.

Leach's mother, Vicki, had doubts about the class in the beginning, but Green helped ease her worries.

"I asked a lot of questions before I let him go," she said, "We wanted it to be a real positive experience."

After Green answered all of her questions, she signed her son up that day. Leach and his brother David are the only two of the family's nine children who attend karate class.

"Class has really helped improve his posture," his mother said.

His control, confidence and coordination also have improved.

Concentration on control and confidence without the focus on aggression also was what Jim Simons' mother, Jane, was looking for.

"Everything is respect (in class)," his mother said.

Simons, 20, was born with Down syndrome. He attends a one-hour karate class two nights a week and is a senior in special education at Soldotna High School. He has won many gold medals in the Special Olympics. He also plays the drums and guitar.

"I want to stretch his potential as much as I can," his mother said.

Simons does not test for belts; he is just in class for the experience and fun.

Simons speaks very little and has learned sign language in school.

Green said Simons' facial expressions show his feelings in class.

If he looks down, he is not having a good time, Green said, but he smiles and giggles when he is having fun.

"Jimmy can be in any setting," Green said.

As a part of his educational curriculum at school, Simons works in various businesses around Soldotna for school credit. He has worked at the Soldotna Sports Center, Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, Safeway bakery, Burger King, Sugar Magnolias, Jo-Ann's Fabrics, Ridgeway Farms and many others in the community. The places he is assigned change from time to time and are considered occupational training.

His other classes focus on teaching everyday life skills.

It was Simons' mother's idea to put him in the karate classes. He attends on a month-to-month basis.

"Mr. Green is very good about working with disabilities," his mother said.

Green not only views working with the disabled as a challenge, but he also sees it as a life experience.

"I do it because it is a need, and I enjoy working with them," Green said.

In the past, Green also has worked with a 6-year-old student with an artificial arm, legs and hip, and a 5-year-old who was blind in one eye and had a paralyzed arm.

Without his previous experience, he said he would not have been as well prepared to work with Leach and Simons.

Green opened his school on the peninsula more than two years ago. He now has two offices -- one in Soldotna and one in Nikiski.

Green's Karate is a part of the Kenwakai Association, and the belts earned in class are recognized worldwide. There are 13 belts to earn overall, each signifying a higher level of achievement, and students must test to raise their belt status. The students are tested on both physical and mental state and their knowledge of a booklet of rules and virtues. The tests usually are taken every three months.

The physical aspects the students learn are sparring, combinations of the movements put into numerical order, Bunkai (the explanation of Kata) and Kata, which consists of a series of movements and techniques in a pattern of blocks, punches and kicks.

Testing is not simply to achieve a different belt, but students must prove they also have matured and developed good manners and etiquette.

Since entering the association, Green's curriculum has changed to meet the standards set across the globe. He also attended seminars to achieve the position of a referee for all phases of tournaments.

Leach's goal in the class is to obtain a black belt, the highest rank of belt status in class. He said it will take approximately three years to get it. But to him, the time factor does not outweigh the goal he set even before starting classes.

He said jokingly that when he gets his black belt, "It means nobody is to mess with me."

Leach qualified for a national tournament, but he was not able to attend because the competition was held in Chicago on Thanksgiving Day.

He plans to compete in a Kata competition in April.

"(When competing) I just pretend no one is there and do Kata anyway," Leach said.

Aside from the belts, many badges for work well done line the sleeve of his black "gi" -- the outfit he wears in class.

Each student finds their own motivation in class. For Leach, it's the competing aspect. For Simons, it is the self-discipline, exercise and focus that keep him in class, not the belts or patches.

"Karate fills the need of being with the general public," his mother said.

"He is joyful in class," Green added.

Green said Simons has no problems following the class.

"But if you give him attention, then he will do things you didn't think he could do," Green said.

Simons also practices at his home in Soldotna, and his mother said karate has become a big part of his life.

"I am happy with what he is getting," she said.

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