Richard Ransom, a MAASV student, poses with his trophy. (Photo Courtesy MAASV)

A free karate program for Northside kids is bringing them out of their shells and out of their neighborhoods, and making them better citizens for the experience.

Seth Cullens, who co-runs the Martial Artists Against Street Violence program with Master Yusuf Owens, said their students won over a dozen trophies in two recent tournaments.

The students have been training for about five months, since August. One student has already earned his orange belt, and the rest are yellow and white belts.

“It’s extremely important for these kids to get out of the basement of the church,” Cullens said.

Owens said the students need to get over “ghetto syndrome,” or feeling like they can’t leave their neighborhoods, and that is why it’s important to take them to tournaments.

Cullens believes the tournaments provide valuable life lessons for the students. One student went to a tournament expecting to win, and was crushed when he didn’t. But after talking to Cullens about his disappointment, was able to deal with it, recognize his mistakes and learn from them.

“I’ve got some kids who have come around,” Owens said. “They’re more expressive and they’re focused. They’re coming to that point of finding themselves.”

Another plus in getting the students out of the Northside is connecting them with the martial arts community at large. That connection, Owens said, gives them something to belong to that’s worthwhile.

In August, the program started with over 40 kids. About 20 have stuck with it and come each Saturday.

“The children’s behavior has started to develop in such a way that reflects the martial arts,” Cullens said.

That means the kids are becoming role models and developing better focus. Many are going home and teaching younger siblings what they learned at the dojang, or karate school.

One particularly snowy Saturday in December, Cullens said one of the students called and asked him not to cancel class. He didn’t, and all 20 kids made it out despite bad roads.

“The kids have really stuck with it, and they’re starting to practice more,” he said.

The Northside’s “dojang” is still the basement of Riverview Presbyterian Church, but Owens said he plans on opening a dedicated training space in East Liberty next year. New students will have to pay tuition, but the Northside kids will still receive their training for free.

Cullens credited the martial arts community for its support. Both tournaments the students entered in December waived the normal $40 entrance fee.

Grand Master C.S. Kim, who runs a chain of schools in the Pittsburgh area, is also helping Martial Artists Against Street Violence by mentoring the new school, Owens said.

Grand Master Kim’s schools host a summer program similar to MAASV’s, and chief instructor Patrick Leach said Kim would like to combine forces with MAASV and other schools to offer programs to at risk and lower income kids.

“As one school comes aboard, other schools will join,” Leach said. “We hope to spread this through Pittsburgh.”

But, aside from initial support from The Northside Leadership Conference and the Mayor’s Office through the Weed and Seed program, Cullens is disappointed in the lack of community support.

“We’re really trying to help these kids,” Cullens said. “It’s time for us to step up and take care of our children.”

Tournaments are usually all-day events, and Cullens and Owens often dip into their own pockets to buy food and water for their students. While they are happy to help the students, it’s not always a financial possibility to buy full meals for 20 kids.

Owens would like to see local sports celebrities step up and support the kids. He said typical tuition for a year of martial arts training is $1,500, which is nothing compared to the millions athletes make.

Cullens and Owens also expressed disappointment that the Pittsburgh Police did not get involved in the program as they originally intended.

Officer Forrest Hodges of the Pittsburgh Police said that the force has had other commitments that conflict with MAASV. “That’s not to say we aren’t going to be there,” Hodges said, although he did not know when an officer would be able to go to a class.

Despite the difficulties of running a free program with no financial backing, Owens and Cullens still believe in the program and the good it’s doing for their students.

“Kids made me proud,” Owens said.