Getting a kick start in life
By Paula Rath
Advertiser Staff Writer
The kids who participate in Kick Start Karate do not simply learn martial arts. They also learn discipline, self esteem, traditional values, character development and study and communication skills.
The nonprofit organization, founded in 1994 by former Honolulu police chief Lee Donohue Sr., serves at-risk and low-income kids ages 9 to 18. It reaches out primarily to kids from Waipahu, but includes youths from surrounding neighborhoods, including Pearl City, Kapolei and Waipi'o.
Kick Start's purpose is to provide academic and fitness-oriented activities to fight juvenile delinquency, substance abuse and gang membership. With assistance from its own fundraising as well as the Police Activities League, Kick Start is able to provide computers, tutors, mentors, karate uniforms and even trips to Japan for karate events. There is also a scholarship fund to help with college.
Although the coveted uniforms are free, kids have to earn them with good grades, exemplary behavior and maintaining stringent standards.
Josh DelaCruz, 32, of Pearl City, is the classroom educator and curriculum coordinator for Kick Start. He oversees the kids' homework and makes sure they get tutoring if needed.
Debate and public speaking skills are emphasized. Students have recently addressed debate subjects such as furloughs and sodas on campus. Success was evident when our videographer, Rebecca Breyer, turned her microphone on three students and, rather than shying away, they stepped right up and spoke their minds.
INSPIRATION IN JAPAN
Donohue has practiced karate since 1962. He got the idea for Kick Start Karate during a visit to Japan in 1993. Police officers there, he said, are required to have a black belt in a martial art, and they often invite the neighborhood kids to come and learn from them.
During its first 16 years, nearly 1,000 kids have participated in Kick Start. Many of them have gone on to college.
Gil Alejo, 79, of Waipahu, has been bringing his grandson, Matthew, 12, a student at Pearl City Highlands Elementary, to Kick Start for three years.
"He was just staying home on the computer, and the doctor said he should be getting more active," Alejo said. "I thought karate would be good for him. He's a green belt now, and he enjoys it. He goes twice a week. He likes the academic aspects too and he gets his homework done."
Alejo added that he appreciates the self-protection karate affords Matthew: "Kids now are out on the street and doing whatever they want, so now if anything happens he's able to protect himself."
Charmaine Manabe, 38, of Waipi'o, got her daughter Tatiana, now 12 and a student at Pearl City Highlands, involved with the program 2 1/4 years ago.
"She loves the intensity of the practice and the discipline," Manabe said. "She's learning to develop self-defense skills. She has a heart for the martial arts."
When Tatiana started, she feared she couldn't keep up, but she thrived in the program, physically and academically. It took her six months to earn her uniform, and she is now a blue belt, highly motivated to advance.
Manabe has become a board member of Kick Start Karate. After seeing how much it helped Tatiana, she wanted to aid its success.
"All we expect is dedication from the family and time from the child," she explained.
'THIS IS WHO I AM'
Former program participants often return to volunteer. Lee Donahue Jr. teaches karate, while UH engineering student Merlin Joshua Agcamaran assists DelaCruz as a student counselor.
Ravena Ballesteros, 26, of Waipahu, now a morning news producer at KITV, joined the Kick Start program in 1995 and stayed involved through 2003.
"It was a way to keep me active," Ballesteros said. "I wasn't interested in sports at school, and it was a different way to meet friends and stay out of trouble. In a place like Waipahu, which is well known for all those negative things, it was really important to me. I was a Kick Start scholar/athlete, and it was a privilege and honor to be in the program."
Kick Start sent Ballesteros to Washington, D.C., for a week during her senior year, and gave her a scholarship to University of Hawai'i-Mānoa, where she majored in broadcast journalism.
"When I went into the program, I was very shy and didn't like to speak in public, but we did so much public speaking that it became like breathing," she said.
Self-confidence is an important aspect of the program, DelaCruz emphasized. "From Day 1 they have to stand in front and introduce themselves. It's a way to say 'This is who I am, and I'm not shy of it.' "