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The Kajukenbo Kid

Hi-Yai!

WebMD Feature

May 28, 2001 -- With a "hi-yai," Ian Vickroy swatted a red punching pad and grinned. It wasn't the intensity with which the 11-year-old struck the pad that made him proud. It was that he was able to do it all.

Ian and about 25 others are enrolled in a martial arts class specifically designed for children with cerebral palsy. Some sit in wheelchairs while they practice their punches. Others stand propped on canes. Spotters stand behind them to catch any falls.

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"This gives us a chance to learn," says senior student Will Jenkins, who wears a purple belt. "I love it. It's teaching us how to be stronger not only mentally, but physically."

Therapy in Disguise

After seeing the benefits from her personal training, Jan Brunstrom, MD, who has cerebral palsy, designed the Fighters With Courage and Power kajukenbo program to help children build their self-confidence while improving their balance and coordination.

Kajukenbo was created in 1947 in Hawaii as a combination of karate, judo, jujitsu, kenpo, and Chinese boxing (kung fu). To advance to the next belt, students must be able to follow explicit instructions, perform techniques, and detail the history and origins of the sport.

It's therapy in disguise. Participating in a martial arts class not only provides students with needed exercise, but strengthens their independence, increases their stamina, and gives them something to strive for -- the next belt.

"It's not just the martial arts," says Brunstrom, an associate professor of neurology and cell biology at Washington University in St. Louis. "[Students are] motivated to do more exercise because they know it will make them do better in the martial arts class. It just all feeds into one another. They're getting therapy, and they don't even know it. The camaraderie and self-confidence is just huge."

'Any One of These Kids Can Fight'

Black-belt instructors from Gateway Defensive Systems teach the students tactics and technique. They demonstrate the proper way to punch, block, and use an escrima stick, a traditional martial arts weapon.

The teachers are encouraging -- but tough -- and are accustomed to training adults, police officers, and military personnel in defense techniques. They don't go easy on their younger students, either. If students forget to say, 'yes, Sifu,' when asked a question, they are ordered to do push-ups. Those late for class undergo the same regime. Brunstrom always joins them.

"We didn't want to come here and say, 'Let's teach a special class to these children," says chief instructor Mike Stempf, a fourth-degree black belt. "Any one of these kids can fight."

About 10,000 babies born each year in the U.S. will develop cerebral palsy, according to the CDC. It is caused by injuries to the brain during fetal development or at the time of birth. Individuals with cerebral palsy can suffer from loss of movement, hearing, or vision, difficulty with speech, and seizures. Symptoms usually develop before the age 2 and may appear as early as three months. Some may experience mental disabilities, while others suffer none at all.

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