Martial arts helps children with disabilities

Oct 17 2010 - 3:10am

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(KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner) Instructors work with children with special needs.
(KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner) Instructors work with children with special needs.

ROY -- Thursday evenings just can't come fast enough for these energetic kids.

Some start the daily countdown on Friday morning, while others put on their "uniform" early Thursday afternoon and wear it around the house for a few hours before it is time to leave for class.

But this weekly martial arts class that the kids focus on is not the typical one full of punches and kicks. Just ask Cody Heslop's mother.

"He's never had anything," Candi Heslop said. "He's gone and watched his brothers do their sports and drums, and this is his own little thing. It's just awesome that he has a place to go and he has his own uniform."

Cody, 14, was born with a genetic condition that has affected his physical and mental growth. Cody does not stop smiling the entire hour, and said the thing he likes most about the class is his friends.

Erik Waller teaches Martial Arts for Children With Autism, or MACA for short. Thanks to Waller's program, Cody and other kids with special needs get the chance to learn martial arts and test for belt advancement.

But there is much more to it than that.

"We just wanted to offer a different program to kids who aren't able to play different individualized sports," said Waller, who knows of just one other program like his, which is in Oklahoma. "To give them something to improve their balance, coordination, memory, and to just work on gross motor skills."

Waller, an instructor in Hap-Ki-Do, which is described as a self-defense martial art style that originated in Korea, credits his wife and sister for helping him with the idea for the class.

They both work with special needs children in the Davis School District and assist him in the class along with other instructors who work one-on-one with the kids.

Waller said he has seen unbelievable improvement in the kids, who work on punching, kicking and rolling, since starting the class in March. He said students who a few months ago had trouble standing and walking on their own can now do so. Other students who would not make eye contact before are now not only looking him in the eye, but initiating conversations with others.

The MACA class does more than help develop those skills. It gives those, who can sometimes feel like outsiders, a place where they know they belong.

"(The instructors) just want the kids to be able to fit in and do everything everyone else can," said Tressa Casper, whose 5-year-old daughter, Shay, is in the class.

Waller allows siblings without special needs to join the class, so Shay's 4-year-old sister, Roxi, gets to join her big sister. Each week the Caspers make the trip from Kaysville, and as far as they are concerned, the instructors make the trip worth the drive.

"It's not the karate I'm driving up for," Casper said. "It's them."

Parents gathered in the seating area during Thursday's class can't help but smile as they see instructors working with their kids. The parents cheer and clap as each child makes it through the obstacle course, or performs another task set up by the instructors.

"I just love how they know that the kids are special," Casper said. "It's nice to know that they care instead of just wondering if they do."

But the appreciation goes both ways. Waller was pretty much speechless trying to describe what it's like experiencing the joy he feels.

"It's a blast being able to work with these kids and giving them something to look forward to every week," Waller said.

Mostly, he said, it's amazing.

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