Special Kicks for Special Kids
Special Kicks for Special Kids
Story by Ann Hosler
Shortly after opening Pooler Karate, owner Carson Fortner was approached by the parents of a young girl named Lila. Lila, who is partially blind, deaf, and nonverbal, wanted to learn karate, so Carson welcomed her as a student. After they worked together for a while, much to everyone’s surprise, Lia was able to walk and talk for the first time in her life.
After his positive experience with Lia, Carson was motivated to actively look for more special needs kids that he could help at Pooler Karate.
Carson’s second special needs student was Maddox Davis, a young man with cerebral palsy. Maddox’s mom, Michelle “Chelly” Davis, would bring him to class in a van that was not wheelchair accessible, nor air conditioned. Chelly physically carried Maddox, who weighed one hundred pounds, in and out of the van every time he went anywhere. In addition to the karate lessons, Carson knew he had to do something to help, so they raised the funds to buy a wheelchair accessible van for the family.
Working with children who truly needed him, and seeing overwhelmingly positive results, was the magic spark that led to the creation of the Special Kicks program.
Special Kicks is a non-profit martial arts program that offers individualized instruction for kids and adults with special needs, including autism, down syndrome, microcephaly, and amputations, to name a few. The program stresses development of balance, coordination, discipline, focus, attention, social skill development, and physical fitness.
“He is my hero” Millie Orme, Executive Director of the Special Kicks program, says of her brother Carson.
When asked what they want the community to know about the program, the answer was simple: “This program changes people’s lives. The teachers, the students, and the parents. It’s not just about karate. It’s about so much more. I love my job and I believe in what we do.”
Word spread about the wonderful work Special Kicks was doing and soon B & B Care Services, Inc. contacted the program asking if they could send special needs students to their classes. They eventually sent 70 special needs students and utilized state funds to offset the cost of the training. (Specific diagnoses are required to be approved by the state for funding, and it takes about three months to process the application.)
One of the students that attends Special Kicks is Alexis “Alex” Mercado. Alex is 28 years old and has cerebral palsy. Recently we observed Alex and his instructor, Matthew Sangiorge, hit the mats and work on high and low blocks.
Being audio-sensitive, loud noises often scared Alex. The first class he took, the loud “Hiya!” made him cry. As he continued his classes, he learned that the instructor would be loud and that was okay. Now joy and enthusiasm pours out of Alex with each “Hiya!” His smile and joy are absolutely contagious.
Special Kicks increases each student’s confidence in themselves and their abilities. During Alex’s first class, he was shown a “Listening Stance.” He wasn’t quite able to do it at first, as you have to balance on one knee, but once he mastered it, it became his favorite thing to do.
After his challenging work training in each class is complete, the instructor allows Alex to choose from one of his three favorite activities to finish. His options are basketball, wrestling, or boxing. When Alex chooses basketball, they set up a special hoop for him, made of a hula hoop. If he chooses wrestling, they get down on the mat and wrestle, or if boxing is chosen, they get on the mat, and put the gloves on.
At Special Kicks, one of the tenets they teach is self-control. Prior to karate, Alex, like some of the other special needs students, would get upset and hurt himself, or would break and throw whatever item was causing him distress. But after being in the program, Alex is now able to adjust his behavior positively. “He is much calmer and a lot more patient,” says his mom, Frances Mercado-Rodriguez.
She says that she has noticed many positive changes in Alex since he started taking classes.
“He likes to play fight, wrestle, and box with his grandfather, and he is very fast, and strong, so you really have to pay attention when doing these things with him.” He also likes to get out of wrist holds and he frequently asks his mom to grab his wrists to show that he is able to get out of it.
Alex had not walked in years, but he is now trying to walk more as his strength and posture have improved. He thinks of himself as an athlete, and he carries himself as such. The instructors also treat him as an athlete, which has helped increase his self-confidence.
Community Support and Fundraising
Unfortunately, during Covid there were many budget cuts made in the Georgia state budget and the funding used for Special Kicks was cut by about 40 percent. With so many special needs students, the school had to get creative and find a way to help fill the funding gap.
The Wild Game Dinner & Raffle was created as a fundraiser for the program and the first dinner was held in December 2020. That first year, approximately $50,000 was raised. In December 2021, they worked hard to double that amount—and they were successful!
Millie Orme designed the Wild Game Dinner & Raffle logo and has had collectible tumblers and stickers made for each of the events. The 3rd Annual Special Kicks Wild Game Dinner Yellowstone Edition will be held on December 10, 2022, with tickets going on sale in October.
Acceptance & Awareness
Acceptance and awareness are included in the goals of the Special Kicks program. The students are either in group classes or receive individual lessons, whatever works best for each student.
Families with loud kids or kids with behavioral issues often assume other families don’t want them to be there, but at Special Kicks no one is left out. Adding special needs students to a mainstream class can boost the student’s confidence and benefit the other students as well, teaching lessons of acceptance and awareness to even the youngest student.
Parents are often surprised at what their Special Kicks kids accomplish. They may say that their child can’t walk, or their child can’t talk, but after time in class, many students may begin exceeding expectations!
At Special Kicks there is always more to learn, and goals to be achieved. Check out all the smiling faces at www.facebook.com/specialkicks