“If you don’t try it, you’ll never learn,” Sifu Jay Lima said as a boy ran up to the mat and did a back flip.
The children shouted the mantra back to their kung fu teacher as they each took turns practicing cartwheels, flips and rolls.
Lima has been teaching the children at The Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County the ancient martial art for the past three years.
Lima, a two-time kung fu world champion, operates Shaolin Eagle Claw Kung Fu School on Atlanta Highway and teaches the children at the Joseph F. Walters Club in Gainesville in the afternoons.
Johnny Nunez, 11, waits his turn in line and looks to Lima for encouragement before trying a new move on the mat. Lima nods and Johnny flips. Johnny said he feels good when he’s practicing kung fu.
Judith Moreno, 10, said she likes the exercise she gets from the after-school practice.
“You’re legs get sore,” she said. “It’s a good experience.”
The lessons began as a way for the club to encourage its members to get physically active.
“This is giving them an opportunity to be exposed to a sport, a physical activity that they wouldn’t have been exposed to,” Unit Director Mark Mendoza said. “Who knows some of these kids might go on and continue practicing kung fu and one day become a kung fu master themselves.”
Since the lessons began the students have learned about Chinese culture and language.
While practicing the basic moves from memory, the students count in Cantonese. The students have progressed in their language lessons to have some dialogue with Lima in Cantonese.
Mendoza said the kung fu lessons are beneficial to the children because of the multi-faceted aspects involved.
“It’s doing a whole lot to help with their self-esteem, their responsibility and discipline,” Mendoza said.
While students learn how to punch and kick, Lima tells the children never to use those skills for violence. It only should be used as self-defense.
Lima said he enjoys watching the children grow and improve their abilities, but it’s the inner change he ultimately hopes to see.
“The kung fu helps them a lot in class to focus and pay attention and listen to teachers,” Lima said. “I’m always saying listen to your teachers, your parents and respect. ... You can see a difference. You can see the kid outside, you can see they look at a person, they respect a person they follow instructions and they learn. This is very important for me to see my students improve and respect everyone.”