The Kajukenbo Kid


5 min read

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.

"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."

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."

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.

There is no cure for cerebral palsy, and there's no research that shows martial arts, specifically, is helpful for patients. But exercise is just as important -- if not more so -- for people with cerebral palsy as for those without it, Brunstrom says.

"Anything you can do to get them moving is one more step toward independence," says Brunstrom, director of the Pediatric Neurology Cerebral Palsy Center at St. Louis Children's Hospital. "That is really the mission -- to help these kids to grow to be independent, so they can do anything they want in their lives."

Rebecca Lamers has been in therapy since she was 2. She tried a variety of classes like horsemanship therapy to keep her active, but nothing held her interest. Kajukenbo is the first class that Rebecca actually looks forward to and has benefited her, as well, her mother says. When Rebecca began class three years ago, she stood using a cane. Now the 20-year old stands alone, is an orange belt, and can throw repeated punches. She uses two canes to walk, but none to fight.

"Therapy is boring, and it hurts," her mother, Linda Lamers says. "This keeps their minds off what they are doing. She now stands on her own. She feels so confident, and I feel confident about her going places" on her own.

The Fighters With Courage and Power program began in the summer of 1998 with five children. It has grown to include more than 60 ranging in ages from 8 to 21. Each student has his or her own success story, Brunstrom says. Children who couldn't get out of their wheelchairs can sit on back-less benches. Others who need canes for stabilizing, can punch without stumbling. Those who were dependent on their parents, now work well with others.

Brunstrom and the instructors from Gateway are developing a video series, instructor programs, and manuals to take to other cerebral palsy organizations. The group, including about half a dozen students, parents, instructors, and volunteers, will be providing doctors from around the world with a demonstration this summer at the 5th International Congress on Cerebral Palsy, which will take place in Slovenia.

"As soon as they start doing this, they forget about balance and let their bodies take over. We never tell these kids they can't," Stempf says. "It's not about size. It's about knowing the techniques."

Nine-year-old April Lohrmann is the youngest in the class. With a yellow belt around her black-clad waist and a scrunchy in her hair to match, she punches with vigor as her Madeline doll keeps watch. By the time she is 12, April, who wears braces on both legs, hopes to be a black belt.

"It's fun," she says. "And I can beat up on my dad."