A kwon-do attitude

Monday, November 22, 2004

Everyone in Alan Williams' 6 p.m. tae kwon do class knows that Katie Van de Ven usually shows up late. So no one is surprised when at 10 minutes past, the class is suspended as the pint-sized 10-year-old wanders into the community room at the SEMO Alliance for Disability in Cape Girardeau.

Putting all her force against the heavy glass door, Katie manages to squeeze her round frame, wrapped in a white, oversized martial arts uniform through the entrance without having to free a hand.

"Sorry we're a little bit late," Katie offers to Williams, struggling to form the words and push them off her tongue. This line has been rehearsed.

Magnified by the spectacles that seem to rest on her round cheeks, Katie's eyes turn hopefully to the larger Williams. In her right hand rattles the ice in a waxed soda cup. In her left is wadded a white cloth belt.

"Do you need help with that?" Williams responds, referring to the belt.

Katie nods.

"Did you get something to eat?" Williams asks, looking at the soda as he kneels down, slings the belt around the girl and starts to tie the knot at Katie's waist.

"Supper."

"What did you get?"

"Burger King."

As trivial as this exchange may seem, Katie was a meek shadow of this girl when her mother first brought her to this adaptive martial arts class two years ago. Used to being alienated as a child with Down syndrome, Katie had almost no confidence in herself around other people. She was initially even more afraid of the class because the white robes resurrected terrible images in her mind of the white uniforms of doctors and nurses from her multiple surgeries and hospital visits. Physically, she had poor coordination and balance. The only way she could lift one of her arms was with the support of the other.

Tonight she's throwing punches and kicks with relative ease and self-assuredness.

With every blow to the air before her, she releases a gruff "ki-hap." But any ferocity implied with this cry is offset by the tongue that constantly creeps out to wet her lips and the bright smile that resurfaces as Williams interacts with her and her classmates.

The approximately 15 students in William's' two classes range in age from 10 to 44, but they have different versions of the same story. They have physical and mental disabilities stemming from Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or physical injury. They've all come to class looking for a fun way to get physical therapy. They get that, but they also get the emotional boost that comes with the feeling of belonging to a group. Both the students and the gallery of parents that looks on during each weekly, hourlong session say it's all thanks to Williams.

Katie's mother, Sharon Van de Ven, simply said, "He knows what they need."

Joint, nerve problems

He knows because he can empathize. Williams suffers from degenerative joint and nerve problems that have put him on the operating table nine times and prohibited him from working his jobs as a machinist and a construction worker. Forced to look for another career, Williams took an interest in physical therapy through his own treatment. With the encouragement of his own therapist and his wife, Juni, he got his license as a physical therapist and began working at Jackson Physical Therapy and Rehab in 1996.

Williams is also a third-degree black belt in the Moo Sul Kwan school of the Korean martial art tae kwon do. Being a 25-year student of the order, Williams found that his martial arts training also helped him in his physical therapy. He soon realized that this physical and mental discipline might also benefit the children and adults he worked with during the day. He started his class in 1998.

Williams calls what he teaches adaptive martial arts. Geared to those suffering physical, cognitive or sensory problems, the class seeks to instill in its students confidence and self-esteem while they learn self-defense; upper and lower extremity strengthening; enhanced balance; coordination and flexibility; and social skills.

Students and parents say it also happens to be a lot of fun.

"It's a way to maintain their attention and help them physically and mentally," Williams said. "A lot of times you can see the kid's confidence boost when their eyes light up just from putting on the uniform."

He said it also challenges them by setting goals. Using the Korean terminology along with the forms, Williams and the Moo Sul Kwan have set up skill-level criteria that can be adapted to each student's needs. His students can move up the ranks from white belt to black by addressing their individual goals, rather than a broad set of standards.

Although this class was initiated as an altruistic act, Williams admits that he gets plenty of compensation for his volunteerism through the smiles of his students. In class, he stirs the pot to bring those smiles out.

"OK, now I think we need to have some fun," Williams instructs his pupils after they finished warm-ups. The students instantly rush to the south side of the room and line up.

They all know that this is the part of class where each student gets to choose their own moves, be it punch, block, kick or combination, and apply it a Wiffle bat-sized foam block held by Williams as he scampers across the room. The students follow Williams, attacking the block at their own pace all the way to the opposite wall.

"Ready, Matthew?" he asks the first student in line.

"Yeah, I'm ready!" yells Matthew Aufdenberg, 29. Releasing a mighty "ki-hap," Matthew lunges after the block with a punch and takes off, fists flying, across the room. As he motors across the carpet, Matthew improvises, taking time to add spin kicks emulating one from the TV show "Walker, Texas Ranger." This whips up a laughter and applause from parents and fellow students alike.

"Go, Walker," yells his father, Richard Aufdenberg.

Matthew's been coming to class for a little over two years now, and his father remembers when he first started it would have been a stretch to ask his son, who like Katie has Down syndrome, to keep his balance while executing a running spin kick.

"It was hard to get him to extend his arms," Richard Aufdenberg said. "This has helped his coordination and motor skills tremendously."

The parents, seated off to the side, cheer every student as they go. They brim with compliments for the class, but one compliment repeated by each parent is that it simply gives their child something to do and something to belong to.

"Therapy is a job that has to be done constantly," says David Lowes, whose daughter Victoria has been one of Williams' students for four years.

Victoria, 13, was born with muscular dystrophy, which inhibits her movement. Her father said she has to keep up with her therapy to avoid regression. He said the fun she has in class keeps her motivated to do that.

No longer needs walker

As the students await their to turn to exhibit their skills, one head in the line stands above the others. It is that of 41-year-old Jack Page.

His full head of salt and pepper hair is disheveled, wrapped in an faded elastic Southeast Missouri Hospital head band that has been put on upside down.

"I'm could do a double back flip with a twist, but that'd draw too much attention," he announces as he steps to the front of the line. He then thrusts forward leading with his right side, hitting the block with a right punch followed by a back-handed right chop as he practically drags his body across the floor.

The left side of Page's body was partially paralyzed in a car accident in 1981. When he awoke from the coma caused by the wreck, he found himself confined to a wheelchair. When he first came to Williams' class at the recommendation of his physical therapist a year ago, Page had to lean on a walker. Through the past year, he's graduated first to needing only a cane to finally being able to walk on his own. He credits this to the conditioning and balance he's received in this class.

Page is walking testimony that Williams' class works for adults as well as children in both physical and mental rehab. Page said before he learned tae kwon do he was short-tempered, often getting into altercations that would end in him being pushed to the ground. Tae kwon do has not only taught him a method of self-defense, but it given him the focus to remain calm and keep his head in situations that might otherwise become heated. It's a patience that he attributes as much to his teacher as he does to the discipline.

"That man has the most patience of any man I know," Page said of Williams. "He's going to help you whether you know it or not."

Page calls this beginner's class his "warm-up" for the following 7 p.m. advanced class that's more for adults. The real reason he's here this early is because he can't drive himself. He relies on the SADI transportation service, which shuts down at 6 p.m. On Mondays the drivers drop him off here for classes, then Williams drives him home after classes end at 8 p.m. before he goes off to teach martial arts at Southeast Missouri State University.

Those personal touches have earned Williams the unshakable trust, respect and admiration of his students and their guardians. That respect is formally exchanged at the end of every class, when the students return to their original file standing before him.

"Kun-gi," Williams calls out.

As they bow, the students answer, "Ho-shin," meaning self-control, self-defense and self-respect.

Rising, Williams smiles, scans the faces of his students one last time and then calls out, "dismissed."

trehagen@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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