Connor Daniel, a 12-year-old student at Ava White Academy in Gainesville, searched longer than most 12-year-olds for an after-school activity.
He tried a martial arts class at a studio outside of Hall County, but the instructor was not able to work with his particular circumstances. Connor Daniel has epilepsy, causing him to experience seizures and short-term memory loss.
“The instructor was very rigid on ‘This is what we do, this is how we do it. You have to be here this many times and perform this way or you don’t get a belt,’ and it was very hard for my child,” said Connor’s mother, Deana Daniel. “He never progressed and never felt like he could actually do things.”
The Daniel’s search continued until the family found Rising Sun Martial Arts Studio off Thompson Bridge Road in Gainesville.
“Most people hear the word autism, disability, and they go ‘Oh, I don’t know,’” Deana Daniel said. “I called Rising Sun and just asked if they would be interested in even having just my son, and they were like ‘Absolutely.’”
The studio’s willingness to accept her son gave her an idea.
The marketing director at Ava White Academy, which educates kindergarten through 12th-grade students with special needs five days a week, knew the school’s 29 students had the same trouble finding inclusive activities accommodating their needs. Students’ disabilities range from autism and cerebral palsy to muscular dystrophy and epilepsy. Therefore, Deana Daniel asked Rising Sun to go a step further than helping her own child.
“I just took a shot in the dark and said ‘Do you want to come here?’” she said. “They said ‘Sure.’”
Studio owners and operators, Master Tim Meek and his wife, Lydia Meek, come to the school behind Westminster Baptist Church on Thompson Bridge Road for an hour twice a week to teach the students taekwondo. A martial art of Korean origin, taekwondo combines combat and self-defense methods with cardiovascular exercise. It also teaches respect and self-discipline, the benefits of which teachers have already seen in the classroom.
“It’s been an amazing program,” Deana Daniel said. “Many of (these children) don’t do any after-school activities. So this is the after-school, in-school activity for them. They all learn differently, and these instructors get it.”
The children understand the importance of following their instructors.
When the Meeks arrive with the equipment, students immediately line up on a mat in the school’s gym and wait for instructions. They have memorized many of the traditional greetings taekwondo practitioners use. All students get a turn to call out numbers and cues when they go through their moves.
And the children seem to love the interaction and exercise.
“(I enjoy) just moving around, staying active,” said Hunter Augustine, a 15-year-old Ava White student and member of the Meeks’ class. “I have to say (I like) it all.”
Teachers see a difference in the students, too.
“I see a lot of confidence building in the students (who take the taekwondo class),” Ava White Academy teacher Susan Daugherty said. “They’re learning how to follow directives, and that’s important. It carries over in the classroom, because if they can follow (the instructor’s) direction and be a team and be focused, they can also do that for us as teachers.”
The sport also helps with the specific issues each student deals with on a daily basis.
“Crossing the midline really helps with (special-needs students’) learning,” Ava White instructor Maura Pittman said. “If you look, (individuals with special needs) have a hard time crossing their body. We make it look easy, but once you have a child who can cross over their body, it helps with their reading and writing.”
The Meeks have 16 students enrolled in the class at Ava White. But this is not the first time the couple has helped a special-needs child develop confidence and skills through taekwondo.
“(Special-needs students) have been kicked around, told they can’t learn, moved from school to school because they don’t learn in a conventional manner,” Tim Meek said. “(But) we’ve had success with our program.”
Tim and Lydia Meek first encountered a special-needs students at their former studio in El Paso, Texas. At that time, the couple “didn’t know what it was” that caused the student to behave irregularly. But once they researched the boy’s disability, Asperger’s syndrome, they adjusted their taekwondo instruction and achieved a tremendous result.
“This kid is now a black belt instructor at our school,” Tim Meek said.
Teaching individuals with special needs can be different from a class of high-functioning individuals, but not in the way you’d expect.
“No. 1, (special-needs kids) try harder,” Tim Meek said. “They’re eager to please. We had one of the parents the other day say ‘I bet this is the funniest class you teach.’ I said ‘But it’s the most rewarding,’ because the students are so eager to please.”
The Meeks also pride themselves on the family atmosphere their studio cultivates. The studio is frequently crawling with moms and babies, and the couple has even picked up and dropped students off at their houses. This philosophy is part of what makes taekwondo good for Ava White’s students.
“The kids that are in our classes look out for one another,” Lydia Meek said. “They encourage one another; sometimes you don’t see that with other sports. This sport is so good for kids that have failed, really, at other team sports because this is individual, but we are a team also.”