By Yvette tenBerge
Sunlight streams through the windows
of the Carlsbad Boys & Girls Club gymnasium, located on the
corner of Roosevelt Street and Oak Avenue. A quiet cluster of
parents sit or stand along the gym's blue walls and shield their
eyes from the glare. They squint or don their sunglasses to better
see the group of 11 five to seven year-old children who work in
front of them. These little ones, dressed in anything from tight
T-shirts and baggy, knee-length shorts to mini-skirts, raise their
small fists in front of their faces and execute a powerful forward
punch while whole-heartedly shouting "Kiai."
Its echoes resonate throughout the building as the children return
to their original stance and wait expectantly for their Sensei
to give the next command.
These parents, many of whom have a serene smile spread across their faces, have come this Tuesday evening to watch their children learn the ancient art of Karate. Although the study of martial arts has traditionally been reserved for those families who could afford to invest large sums of money in their children's extracurricular activities, programs like the one held here in Carlsbad, aim to deliver a decisive blow to such socio-economic barriers.
America's Youth Outreach Programs, an organization dedicated to providing low-cost, community outreach programs to children between the ages of five to fifteen, has taken on the task of making Karate classes available to all families regardless of their ethnicity or their economic background. Since 1992, America's Youth has been able to pare down the cost of quality lessons in a number of ways. They hold their courses at already established community facilities rather than at expensive, upscale martial arts studios, and they hire qualified, committed instructors, like Mike Demedicis, who practically volunteer their expertise in order to have the opportunity to pass along an art that has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on their own lives.
"Most martial arts studios try to run students off and keep only the cream of the crop. America's Youth works in the reverse of that. We teach that, with self-control and the ability to focus your mind on your goals, you can do anything," says Mr. Demedicis, a copier repair contractor by day who has been an instructor with America's Youth for one year. He is one of eight, full-time instructors employed by the program, teaching an average of 300 kids per week in four, three hour shifts. Each week, he travels to lead classes in Carlsbad, San Marcos, Ramona and San Carlos.
Now a 6'2" fifth degree black belt, Mr. Demedicis describes himself as having at one time been a "clumsy teddy bear" of a child who grew "disproportionately." He also suffered from dyslexia, a learning disability that causes the brain to perceive numbers and letters in reverse order and often backwards. "My family was constantly moving around, so knowing Karate helped me to not be afraid of starting at a new school. I knew that I could defend myself if I needed to. I was also never very good at team sports. Karate provided me with an outlet. It allowed me to grow on my own pace without having to feel pressured that I might let my team down," says Mr. Demedicis. "One thing that my mother did not expect was that [Karate instruction] would help to correct some of my learning disabilities. I went from being a kid who was `not that intelligent' to one who was earning straight A's."
These unexpected benefits, when combined with the low-cost of the lessons, the flexible payment plan and the convenient, familiar locations of the classes, have the enrollment numbers at America's Youth as high as 2,500 kids per week. Families pay only $6 per child per lesson (or $5 per child if enrolling two or more children) plus a $4 registration fee paid at the beginning of each semester. The $30 uniform is an added cost, and although not mandatory, it is recommended. Many students sell raffle tickets in order to raise the money to purchase their uniform, as well as to raise the funds to purchase other equipment. Classes are taught in 30 locations throughout San Diego in Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA's, YWCA's, city and county parks, and schools.
Stephen L. Eakins, the founder of America's Youth, first began teaching Karate for children in 1986. "I began teaching to make extra money. Once I saw the effect that Karate was having on the children's lives, I came up with the idea of taking an affordable program nation-wide," says Mr. Eakins, who credits Karate with bringing his own life into focus in his late teens. "I witnessed that, everything Karate had done for me, it was doing for these kids. It was building their confidence, their self-esteem, their coordination and their physical fitness, as well as other qualities that would help them socially and academically."
Although Mr. Demedicis's classes are not as large as some of the classes in areas like Chula Vista, which accommodate as many as 180 children on some evenings, the smaller group of students and parents who attend his lessons are no less enthusiastic. Brindo Rodriguez, a 42 year-old electric assembler who lives in Oceanside, travels 14 miles to bring his two children to Mr. Demedicis's classes. As with most kids, the Rodriguez's learned about America's Youth from one of the trade-mark, fluorescent green fliers that they distribute in public elementary schools at the beginning of each semester.
"My children saw the flier two years ago and told me to bring them [to the classes]. Taking Karate has increased their self-esteem, and I believe that it has made them smarter. Both of my children are number one in their classes," says Mr. Rodriguez, who beams with pride when discussing his children's accomplishments. He waits patiently by the door, as he does each week, while his 11 year-old daughter, Myriam, and his 8 year-old son, David, practice their kicks in the second class of the evening. "Since they have taken these classes, they have been more open to taking orders, and they have been more responsible. Programs like this also keep the kids busy after school, which is very important to me. I do not want them getting into gangs or into trouble."
According to Mr. Rodriguez, the flexible payment schedule has allowed his family to afford lessons that, otherwise, he might not have been able to afford. "My kids love these classes, so I am happy that they are affordable. There are times when we don't have the money one week, so we just don't show up. The next week, my children can make up the classes by attending two in the same day."
Rocio Luis, an 11 year-old student who has already earned her purple belt (the fourth belt in a series of nine colors) has been taking classes from America's Youth for the past two years. Although timid, she admits that she has become a lot less shy since taking Karate. "I love coming to class because it is fun, and I am learning new things. It feels good to be able to defend myself, and I am not as shy as I used to be," says Miss Luis, who waits for the third class of the evening to start. She looks down at her belt that is neatly folded in her hands before she smiles and says that her "favorite part of Karate" are the kicks. She adds that one of her best kicks is the "flying front thrust kick," one of the more complicated moves.
Although it is hard to estimate the number of children that will stay through the program long enough to become black belts, it is easy to see the look of excitement and pride that crosses the children's faces during the award ceremonies at the end of each semester. "My greatest hope is that [each of these kids] stays involved and that they all make black belt. The sense of accomplishment means all the world. It is like getting your bachelor's degree or beginning a business and turning it into something that is worth millions," says Mr. Demedicis, describing why his sixth-grade dream of becoming a martial arts instructor has stayed with him and has continued to be his passion. "Bring me an uncoordinated child, a child with a disability or a child who just gives this their all, and they will be the ones dear to my heart because that is what I was. No instructor is getting rich off of this program. This one is all about the children."
For more information about America's Youth or to find the location nearest you call 619-282-3066 between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., Monday through Friday.
San Diego Grand Nationals Tournament
Families interested in discovering just what martial arts have to offer may want to attend the 3rd annual, San Diego Grand Nationals Competition held on Saturday, April 28th and Sunday, April 29th. Presented by Tom Georgion, the owner of Aaction Kenpo Karate in Escondido, the two-day tournament features competitions in all styles and in all divisions of martial arts. On Saturday evening, an entertainment-packed show will showcase international martial arts experts from around the world.
Up to 1,000 children and adults will gather to compete and Grand Champions will receive plaques and cash awards. Among the martial arts that will be demonstrated are Karate, Kung Fu, Wushu, Kenpo, as well as sports like Grappling. Specialty features include Sunday morning's Handicapable event, a portion of the tournament aimed at celebrating the skills of students with disabilities.
Event coordinators expect an estimated 3,000 people to attend the weekend's events. Tickets can be purchased at the discounted price of $10 for one day and $17 for two days until Saturday, April 21st. Ticket prices at the door are $12 for a one-day ticket and $20 for a two-day ticket.
Where: Golden Hall at San Diego Grand Concourse, 202 "C" Street
When: April 28th and April 29th from 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Final show is Saturday from 7:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
For more information visit www.prokenpo.com or call 760-743-2467.