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'Can Do' Attitude Kicks In

A karate class for the disabled--one of many programs offered by the group AbilityFirst--offers positive lessons, with lots of applause and hugs along the way.


Hands on hips, they line up--with a little coaxing--11 karate students about to be put through their kicks and lunges. One is a little girl in a wheelchair.

The shogu, or lineup, in place, instructor Anthony Marquez asks, "Who remembers the No. 1 stretch? . . . Ichi," he says, coaxing them to say it in Japanese.

"I'm tired," announces one student, only minutes into the class. Marquez chooses not to hear and continues with his game plan, the basic foot positions of Okinawan goju ryu karate and the front kick, or mae geri. He knows the importance of keeping this class focused. When students' attention strays, he refocuses them with 30 seconds of silence or a deep-breathing exercise.

He begins a dialogue with the class, not as idle chatter but as a tool for teaching memorization and concentration. "Where does karate come from?" he asks. There is one wrong guess (Japan), but another student remembers. "Okinawa!" Right, says Marquez, who learned this style of karate during the eight years he lived on Okinawa, which was once a separate island kingdom.

A little later he repeats the question, "Where does karate come from?" Someone replies, "Agua." A wave of giggles sweeps the room. Marquez is undeterred.

"We laugh, we joke, we play, we sweat, we train and we focus. Silence is beautiful. When you're quiet, you hear things most people never hear. If you want to learn, it's better to be silent, and look and listen."

At session's end, students give themselves a big hand. There are hugs all around. Marquez is pleased because this is no routine karate class. It is karate for the physically and mentally disabled, one of the new uplifting programs offered by AbilityFirst, formerly known as the Crippled Children's Society of Southern California.

"Karate is just one vehicle," says AbilityFirst President Ritchie Geisel, who has been watching Marquez's class from the sidelines at an AbilityFirst center in Pasadena. "But it really incorporates our whole philosophy." That philosophy was the impetus for the name change: "We want to focus on what everyone can do, not what they can't do." The old name, he adds, "sent a different kind of message."

Antonio Orellana, 21, who has Down syndrome, likes the kicking part best. Meghan Jaramillo, 10, who has arthrogryposis, a movement-restricting muscle disorder, and was born with dislocated hips, can raise her feet only inches off the floor but loves doing arm punches.

"We have children who have competed in mainstream karate competitions and returned with medals around their necks," says the organization's director of strategic operations, Stephanie Ivler of Claremont. Her son, Daniel Nissimyan, introduced the classes in

1997 as a 13-year-old looking for a community service project.

Seeing the response of the students--how they dared to move their bodies in new ways, the interaction among those who had always shied away from communicating, the increase in self-esteem--the society adopted and expanded the classes.

Marquez, who runs the School of Hope martial arts academy in Glendora, has been teaching karate for 30 years, 25 of which he spent working with people with special needs. He says, "The greatest gift they give me is my ability to be childlike without being ashamed."

His teaching philosophy: "Be all you can be, and you can be a little bit more." He is in awe of the courage the disabled display in competition, their determination to earn the belts signifying increased levels of skill. "They meet the standards I set for them. I don't give anything away, except my love." One of his AbilityFirst students, 15-year-old Elizabeth Robb, who has a mild developmental delay, is going for her green belt and is an apprentice instructor, or kohai, at Marquez's academy.

The students range in age from class youngster Meghan to Yvonne Schavoni, an enthusiastic 60-year-old. Some have both developmental disabilities and orthopedic problems that make it tough just to get through a session without hanging onto a chair. Meghan, who is highly intelligent, has multiple physical disabilities. The others accept her. She accepts them.

Her father, Danny Jaramillo, has observed how they play off one another. The others, he says, "are different, but they're special in their own way. It felt right for my daughter. It almost feels like our family."

In addition to karate class, the organization offers "Echoes," an interpretive sign language choir made up of adults at AbilityFirst's Long Beach vocational training center. The agency also offers a cross-section of programs at 20 facilities in Los Angeles and Orange counties. They include a drill team, resident camping, vocational training, a computer lab and independent living.

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