Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Life skills students fight through pandemic difficulties to reach karate milestone | Education

Through snow, rain, online school and even spring break, students in Santa Fe Public Schools’ Keeping Independent Visions Alive program have been honing their karate skills.

On Wednesday, KIVA students — Santa Fe graduates ages 18 to 22 — put those skills on display to graduate from the beginning level of karate. The first level is symbolized by a white belt; they received their yellow belts at Jeff Speakman’s Kenpo 5.0 Santa Fe martial arts studio on Airport Road.

Yellow belts, which according to the New York Martial Arts Academy signify “the first beams of sunlight that give a seedling new growth and new life,” are worn by students who are able to demonstrate the basics of karate.

The strips of sunflower-colored cloth the students tied around their waists Wednesday afternoon after completing an hour’s worth of techniques at lightning speed were a contrast to the overcast weather outside.

“In order to get a yellow belt, they need to know all the basics,” said their karate teacher, Tony Potter, who owns the martial arts studio, after the test.” When they’ve learned all of that and they can do it on their own, then they’re ready.”

That includes combining blocking techniques like ducking and covering with self-defense techniques.

The students took the test as a group, in front of a crowd of parents and teachers at the studio, as Potter called out commands.

Potter said it can take from four months to a year to work up to a yellow belt — and some students testing Wednesday had been training for two years, including 32-year-old Marissa LeRouge.

LeRouge graduated from the KIVA program in the 2000s and now takes karate classes at Potter’s studio. In an interview Wednesday, she made it clear she wants to move up from the yellow belt to the next level, represented by an orange belt.

To LeRouge, the appeal of karate is obvious.

“I like doing the moves,” she said.

For other students, like 20-year-old Angelo Tapia, putting on a karategi (the white robe uniform worn in karate competitions) and emitting a “kiai” — an energy-releasing shout — represents a chance to participate in a sport that once seemed inaccessible.

“My physical therapist … actually meets me there and is able to help me get out of my wheelchair and participate in the class,” Tapia said. “Before [this]I didn’t know there was an opportunity out there.”

Tapia said he wasn’t nervous ahead of the belt test.

“Just go for it; push forward,” he told students interested in trying karate. “It’s actually really fun.”

During Wednesday’s test, Tapia led his peers through some of the sets they had to demonstrate to earn their belts by calling out positions: inward block, outward block, chamber.

“Angelo can tell all of them what to do on every technique and every form and every set,” Potter said after the test.

Potter said he’s not just looking for students to perfectly execute punches and kicks, he’s looking for students to be passionate about the values ​​behind the martial art.

While KIVA students have taken Potter’s classes for eight or so years, having a cohort test for their full adult yellow belts was a first inspired by the persistence they showed when COVID-19 brought classes online.

“I saw, because they never stopped, how good they became,” Potter said.

Teachers with KIVA say the mind-body connection in Potter’s karate classes lines up well with the mission of the life-skills program.

Potter said his class doesn’t just show students how to learn karate but how to teach it to their peers.

“He really has created this class for adult students with special needs,” lead teacher Allison Hill said.

For decades, the KIVA program has emphasized job readiness and life skills for Santa Fe graduates with disabilities.

Hill said the mission had to adapt quickly during coronavirus pandemic-era remote learning, when even karate classes went online and students tuned in from their living rooms.

“With COVID, we’ve had to get a little creative,” she said. “We haven’t been able to get out as much.”

KIVA students are usually “out, out, out” in the community, Hill said, navigating the city using public transportation, putting in hours at job sites around town and meeting with organizations like Planned Parenthood to learn more about relationships and boundaries.

Online learning slowed that. Hill said students went from meeting daily in person to expanding their technology-based skills through email and digital job applications. They all relied heavily on written communication.

This year, students are back in class but out in the community less often. Instead of visiting job sites, like Assistance Dogs of the West, job sites are coming to them.

“We hope to revitalize those job sites next year,” Hill said. “We need to keep the moment going as much as possible.”

Even if KIVA class is less active than in previous years, the hands-on nature of the program and the tightknit class is a welcome change for Charity Roybal, 20.

Roybal recently graduated from Early College Opportunities High School, where she focused on welding. Toward the end of her time there, she said, much of her welding classes were taught online and through books.

“It wasn’t fun because of my dyslexia,” she said. “I’m a hands-on learner.”

During spring break, Roybal went out of her way to attend karate class this year, even as KIVA was out of session. Her family lives far from the Airport Road studio, but she’s working toward getting her driver’s license.

“I’ve wanted to take karate since I was young, so I’m glad I’m getting the chance,” she said ahead of her belt test. “I guess because it’s easy for me.”

Wednesday, after Roybal and other students placed their white belts aside and tied on their yellow belts, Potter gave Roybal the ceremonial kick in the stomach that serves to push students “into the next level.” It was followed by a hug.

“It gives her more motivation,” said her mother, Denise Salas. “This is her wanting to get up and do this even when we’re at home.”

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