What should I do? Watch the big game or fulfill my commitment? I realized that there were more important things in life than football, and this was one of them.
Club Kung Fu is a martial arts program for Jewish special-needs children ages 9-15 that is designed to improve self-discipline, self-esteem and physical fitness. Right now, about eight boys meet weekly, but the program is expanding, thanks to a Cutting Edge grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.
It all started when I met Rabbi Michy RavNoy, executive director of The Friendship Circle, an organization set up to pair volunteers with special-needs children. My family and I became very involved because my Uncle Brian (of blessed memory) had been a special-needs child who could have benefited from the program. Since volunteering has always been highly valued in my family and since I love sports, this program was a natural fit for me.
The students in the club have disabilities that aren't visible from the outside but do exist, making their lives hard in many ways. They have autism, severe learning disabilities or behavioral challenges. Most of them lack social skills and are very lonely.
Even with these disabilities, they all have a good chance of functioning well in society with some additional assistance and support. This program gives these kids the opportunity to socialize and interact with others, while learning important self-defense skills.
Furthermore, with some Torah lessons from Rabbi Michy during class, their Jewish pride is strengthened. They are making friends while strengthening themselves both physically and emotionally. Since the participants are often targets of bullying, it is perfect because they also learn how to protect themselves.
The children are upbeat, learning the art of kung fu and having tons of fun doing it. Jack Huang, the leader, is not only a great teacher but a great guy. Although he is not Jewish, he seems to be attuned to Judaism.
He once said to Rabbi Michy, "I'm sure God says somewhere [in the Bible] that if you help yourself, God will help you." He understands these kids and relates well to them. He can be serious and funny at the same time. He is well respected.
Along with two other volunteers, I act as a personal assistant to Huang. Together we help the participants master the moves that Huang teaches by helping them practice kicks, punches and blocks.
It is unfortunate that for most of these kids, this is the only time in the week they get out and interact with others, besides at school. They definitely take advantage of it. The impact of the program is huge, and I can clearly see the changes in them. At the beginning they were all very shy, but now they come into class noisy and ready to learn and have fun.
One student in particular, Michael, started off extremely shy. He would hardly interact with anyone and preferred to play video games at home all day. But as time went on, he started to come to each class with a huge smile on his face.
He has gone from being the quietest to the loudest and most enthusiastic. He is comfortable being around both the assistants and his other classmates and, in addition, is constantly cracking hilarious jokes.
One boy, Akiva, started out as a student but soon, instead of being assisted, started to assist others. I have watched him mature greatly. He now works so well with the other students that they have begun to look up to him, which has been great for his self-esteem. He is so committed to the class that one time, when his parents were going out of town, he insisted that they make sure that he could get a ride to Club Kung Fu.
This program means so much to me. I love seeing these kids grow up and improve their social skills, and I feel good about being a part of their development. It is amazing to watch them work hard and, with pride, receive their first belts. I, too, had the added satisfaction of earning my own belt.
I will always have opportunities to watch football, but watching these special-needs children integrate into society is far more satisfying.
Nathan Sobol is a 10th-grader at Hamilton High School Academy of Music.
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15; deadline for the January issue is Dec. 15. Send submissions to email@example.com.