Looking for the right taekwondo program for her son, Jen Marshall had all but given up.
She telephoned two different local facilities, she said, and got the same answer: They had never worked with special-needs children, and they were sorry they couldn't help.
Then in early October, she spotted a flier for Martin's Taekwondo America at Huntersville's Nomad Aquatic Center. Marshall spoke with instructors Josh and Ashley Martin, who never hesitated to accept 5-year-old Ben as a student.
Numerous parents of children in the "Super Heroes" classes for special-needs kids, including the Marshalls, rave about Martin's Taekwondo America programs in the Concord-Huntersville and Mount Pleasant areas. They say their children, whether affected with autism, cerebral palsy, Asperger's syndrome or something else, are finding their niche with a sport that teaches them discipline, self-defense and exercise.
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Ben was born with a type of cerebral palsy called hemiplegia. It means his right foot and arm are turned in toward his body and lack flexibility. At least partly because of that affliction, he lacks confidence around other children his age and is sometimes unwilling to try new things.
His mother, and his father, Ted, said it has been heartbreaking to see Ben recognize that he's unable to keep up with neighborhood kids playing soccer in the backyard.
"We've heard him say, 'I can't do that. I can't score. I can't catch them,' " Jen Marshall said. "We want him to exercise, just participate in a sport, to feel comfortable and feel the progress and meet goals."
Josh Martin started Ben with one-on-one lessons, because Ben was easily distracted around other kids. Martin alters his instruction to suit Ben's needs, including assisting him with his balance on his right side.
In a couple of months, Ben has earned his first stripe for completing the three basic kicks: forward, side and crescent. With his progress, Jen Marshall said she would like to see him earn more stripes and attend tournaments.
Martin, a seventh-degree black belt, said he's been teaching taekwondo for 20 years and has never refused instruction to any child or adult. He started teaching in Indianapolis but opened his first site in Mount Pleasant four years ago.
"I always thought taekwondo had something to offer everyone," said Martin, adding that he has instructed children who use wheelchairs as well.
Ryan Cennamo is a 7-year-old from Huntersville who is diagnosed with autism and Tourette's syndrome. Tutor Pam Aiello escorts Ryan to after-school activities throughout the week and has noticed how taekwondo keeps his interest more than other activities.
"His focus here is so amazing," Aiello said. "And it's a great reinforcer to be able to tell him that he's coming to taekwondo ... He does so much better here because of the one-on-one."
Stephanie Street said her 11-year-old son, Asher, tried taekwondo about five years ago, but the instructor didn't understand Asher's diagnosis of Asperger's, a kind of high-functioning autism. Stephanie said the teacher "expected him to act as a 6-year-old, but he was acting as a 4-year-old."
Asher began his lessons with Martin in October 2008, and he was earning stripes in only a couple of months. He's always been in a mainstream class, but Street said Martin gives Asher the attention he needs to reach goals.
Asher is extremely proud of the third-place bronze medal in sparring and the fourth-place bronze in form that he earned at a Taekwondo America regional tournament at Lake Norman last summer. Martin insists that special-needs students earn their ranks as mainstream students and attend the same tournaments.
Martin's Taekwondo America was using the Nomad facility on a temporary basis and expects to be in a new Concord/Huntersville location by the first of the year.
For more information on the "Super Heroes" program, call 704-794-2150 or visit www.martinstkd.com.