Most of the 21 children standing in the church basement in black and gold karate uniforms had never done this before, but when Tae Kwon Do Master Yusef Owens told them to line up and stand at attention, he didn’t have to ask twice.
In about 10 minutes on August 8, he taught four rows of kids, ranging in age from six to seventeen, how to line up properly, how much space they would need and the Korean commands for “attention” and “bow.”
Although Owens hadn’t yet learned most of the children’s names, he said, “I look at everyone in this room as part of my family.”
The children stood rapt, excited for what they were about to learn in the Martial Artists Against Street Violence free karate program. Owens spoke about the violence that ran rampant in the Northside communities these children will grow up in.
“It’s not bad to be nice,” he said. “The key of martial arts is to be humble.”
These kids will learn Tae Kwon Do, from white belt to black belt, completely free of cost because of Community Development Block Grant funds the mayor’s office awarded to the program to pay for all the uniforms, pads and other equipment the kids need.
Owens and Seth Cullens, who takes care of administrative duties like registering children and ordering uniforms, organized and run the program on an entirely volunteer basis, and Riverview Presbyterian Church allows them to use its basement free of charge.
Cullens and Owens said the program has four main goals for the kids: getting them off the streets, instilling discipline and self-confidence, creating better relationships between the community and local law enforcement and physical fitness.
Zone 1 Police Commander Michelle Brackney also agreed to get involved in the program, and time allowing, Cullens said Zone 1 would have a member of the S.W.A.T. Team present at each class. No officers were able to attend the first class because of training for the G-20 economic summit, he said.
Cullens said the idea of having local police help teach the course is to familiarize the local police officers with local kids. If the kids know the officers, he said, they’ll be less likely to mouth off and cause trouble, and if the officers know the kids, they’ll be more likely to take the kids home to their parents rather than arresting them.
After a warning that he would be strict with them, Owens told the kids if they were ready he would take them to watch the upcoming Kumite Classic national martial arts tournament at the Hilton Hotel August 21-23, in which he and some of his advanced students will compete.
Owens said Bill Viola, promoter for the event, secured 30 free tickets for the kids.
August 8 marked the start of the free program, open to all children ages 6 to 17 who live on the Northside. Cullens said a total of 31 kids pre-registered, and 13 who hadn’t showed up and registered at the church, for a total of 44 kids.
Although not all of the kids came to the first class, Cullens said the initial response the program has received was unexpected; especially considering the only advertising he did was on social networking sites like Facebook and by word-of-mouth.
“I know trying to get 12 people to come to an event is neck breaking,” said Cullens, who used to volunteer as a community organizer. “Honestly I didn’t know I’d get 40-some kids that fast.”
The idea for a program like this started with the Weed and Seed program, a neighborhood initiative run out of the Community Capacity Development Office of the U.S. Department of Justice.
When the Northside started its own chapter of Weed and Seed a few years ago, Cullens got involved and knew he wanted to work with a program to help Northside kids. When he met Owens at an Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — more commonly known as ACORN — clean-up in Homewood, he knew Owens’s MAASV program would be perfect.
Owens, who formed MAASV in 2005, said he was inspired to create the organization after losing one of his karate students to street violence. Now, he works with martial artists all over the Western Pennsylvania region and beyond to promote a message of humility, self-confidence and discipline through martial arts.
MAASV and the Northside chapter of Weed and Seed did not receive any funding from the federal government this year, but Kim Graziani, director of neighborhood initiatives, said Mayor Luke Ravenstahl did not want the group’s efforts to go to waste.
The mayor’s office agreed to reimburse MAASV $5,277 for equipment if it could find an organization to front the money. Cullens said the Northside Leadership Conference offered, and from there, everything fell into place.
Owens and Cullens said they’ve had no problem finding volunteers to help out, and that they’ve received offers of assistance from many local martial artists, as well as parents.
“They know the concern,” Owens said. “They know the problem right now, so they’re doing what they can to help.”
Although the program is currently only open to Northside youth, both Owens and Cullens said their ultimate goal was to expand the program to the entire city, and possibly to all 50 states.
For the first class, Owens paired the children up and taught them how to kick and punch properly. Cullens moved around the basement-turned-classroom and helped a few struggling kids while Owens demonstrated techniques.
Cullens said he took some karate as a child, but his parents couldn’t afford it, and he still remembers how disappointed he was at having to quit. Now, he and Owens will have private training sessions to keep Cullens one step ahead of the kids so he can help them out with their technique.
Cullens said that he will continue signing up kids as long as they can, and if they run out of money they will look for alternate sources.
Graziani said the group would be able to apply for the Community Development Block Grant money next year as well, and that there’s also a possibility of being funded directly through Weed and Seed.
“With or without the money we can still make an impact,” Cullens said. “We really believe a program like this can do a lot of good for a lot of kids.”
At the end of the class, Owens had the kids line up again. Before he asked them to meditate and bow to formally end the class he said, “Martial arts is a lifestyle. Once you choose to be a martial artist, you never stop.”
For more information, e-mail Seth Cullens at firstname.lastname@example.org.