Black Belts & Open Hearts 

by Hugo Bravo

The Mudokwan Martial Arts program at The Salvation Army in Springfield, Ohio, turns students into Taekwondo black belts, volunteers, and more. 

In 1988, The Salvation Army in Springfield, Ohio opened a summer day camp exclusively for children with disabilities. It became one of its most popular ministries, and gave children access to summer activities that they may not have been able to enjoy in the past, such as miniature golf, sports, hiking, and talent shows. 

Ten years later, another ministry, Mudokwan Martial Arts, debuted there. The church leaders wanted a program where at–risk youth in the community could focus their energy on something positive. They used the gym for a dojang: a training hall, to teach Taekwondo. The program’s teachers also took a cue from the summer day camp by welcoming children with disabilities to their classes and training them as well. 

Along with creating black belts, the program has transformed students into counselors and volunteers who now work at the summer day camp. Tarole Lloyd, who works at the camp and as a volunteer teacher in the Mudokwan Martial Arts program, says, “When we saw how the students interacted with special needs children in Taekwondo, we had a good idea of how they would interact with kids in a camp setting. They have tolerance, patience, and know how to face the challenges of overseeing children. Once they understand that, they treat the children like they would any other child.” 

Respect given; respect earned 

“Anyone can teach or learn how to throw a punch or do a block,” says Rick Lloyd, Tarole’s husband and the Taekwondo instructor. “That’s not what makes our program at The Salvation Army special. While we’re helping students earn their black belts, we’re also teaching them leadership, patience, and compassion. 

“When you walk into the dojang, everyone is wearing the same dobok or uniform,” says Rick. “Any socioeconomic differences are kept out. You can be a white, green or orange belt. You can be male, female, short or tall, big or small. But all are wearing the same clothes as everyone else.” 

As a rule, if someone outranks you by belt in the dojang, you must call them “sir” or “ma’am.” But in practice, Rick says that everyone calls everyone else “sir” or “ma’am.” 

“That has really worked for us here, and even better, it translates outside of the class as well. I can’t tell you how many times our students have said that they’ve been asked if they or their parents were ever in the military. People notice that courtesy and respect,” says Rick proudly. “Being trained in martial arts develops character. It has helped make me into the person I am today.” 

Rick says that sometimes grading is done on a curve to accommodate the abilities of every student. However, every student is given the same expectations to participate, take on leadership roles, and even attend Taekwondo tournaments. “We want everyone to see all our children as normal kids,” says Rick. 

Leaders of the pack 

“It’s mutually beneficial to have kids as leaders in both the camp and the dojang,” says Tarole. “The older kids learn that children with special needs are just like them; they just need a little more support. Sometimes a child with special needs can be treated very differently or worse, set aside. Our goal is to have those kids feel elevated, not different.” 

The Lloyds’ daughter, Catherine, has been taking Taekwondo for 18 years. She says that seeing other children learn martial arts or a camp activity brightens her day. 

“I’ve grown up with the families who come here,” says Catherine. “When the students learn that there is a camp for the kids that they’re helping learn martial arts, they’re immediately curious and want to know how they can help. Some even have siblings who attend the camp.” 

“We’ve had students in Taekwondo with Down syndrome, autism, or who needed prosthetics to move. But the uniform made us all equal,” says Nathaniel, a 21–year–old black belt. “As in any sport, you build relationships with people by your side. You train with them, you compete against them, and they become family.” 

“When I started volunteering at the camp, I had never been around that many kids at once, but I loved it, because I had worked with them in Taekwondo,” he says. “I already knew that they weren’t all that different than I was at that age. They may think or act slightly different, but they’re still normal children. They want to run, laugh, and tell us jokes. When they fall or have an accident, they will cry, be consoled, and go back to having fun.” 

Trust in the process 

Danielle, a mom from the Springfield community who has fostered several children with special needs, remembers when she was looking for a martial arts program for her 6–year–old son, who is now 24. 

“Everywhere I went, I saw that the instructors were either incredibly strict or very uncontrolled and let the children do whatever they wanted,” she remembers. “But here, the teachers are focused, and the kids always show respect, even the youngest ones.” 

Danielle put her son and two of her daughters in the program. Through the years, she has had over a dozen of her children take part in Taekwondo, summer camp, or both. “Having someone who you can trust to protect your children is important, especially for a parent of a child with disabilities,” says Danielle. “Our biggest worry is that our special needs kids can’t always speak for themselves, so they can’t tell you if they’re being mistreated or hurt in any way. 

“The leadership in both programs don’t just care about kids like mine. They are building up other young people to be leaders and care for them too. Here, I know that my kids will be safe.” 

The rock of the ministry 

Rick says that the secret to running two successful ministries that welcome children with disabilities is Tarole herself. He calls his wife “the rock” of both programs. 

“Tarole and I met here at The Salvation Army, and she immediately picked up that I wasn’t as good with kids as she was. I was used to teaching Taekwondo to adults and older teenagers, and now I had 45 young white belts running around. It was a learning experience for me, and I only learned because of her,” says Rick. 

“Mrs. Lloyd has never turned a child away here, no matter how rambunctious on the first day,” says Nathaniel. “Her heart is always open for us, even outside of the dojang. She knows how we’re doing in school. She wants the maturity we’re developing here to be applied in our own lives.” 

“The Salvation Army knows that it’s difficult to talk to a person about the love of Christ if that person is hungry, so it’s best to meet that need first. In the same way, a child can’t learn if he can’t be still, disciplined, or has anger in his heart,” says Tarole. “That’s where the martial arts come in. It opens their hearts, focuses on their behavior, and shows them that they’re loved, and just as good as everyone else in here.” 

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