Students with cognitive disabilities build both self-defense skills and confidence that can be applied elsewhere in their lives

PHIL HAWKINS - Miguel Martinez prepares to strike a breaking board held by Tawnia Mauro at the ATA Martial Arts & Karate for Kids dojo in Keizer.One of the primary tenets of any martial art is to not engage in conflict, and that first begins with confidence.

Before the students in Woodburn School District's Bridges Transition program throw their first punch or break their first board, they are first instructed how to assert themselves with the kind of poise that would not make them a target in the first place.

"How you walk down the street is self-defense," said Nathaniel Mauro, of Ascent Martial Arts in Keizer. "If I walk around with confidence, I am communicating to the world I am confident. I am not prey. If you're a predator, you're going to leave me alone."

This is one of many reasons why CJ High, a specialist and instructor at the Bridges Transition program, contacted Mauro about setting up his class with a series of lessons at Mauro's dojo, the ATA Martial Arts & Karate for Kids location in Keizer.

The Bridges program helps students with cognitive disabilities build the kind of necessary abilities that are needed for life beyond high school — things like how to apply for a job, how to advocate for oneself and how to avoid abuse.PHIL HAWKINS - Woodburn School District's C.J. High helps show Bridges student Danny Hildago the proper way to hold nunchaku.

"We work with a population that leads in abuse, attacks, physical abuse, mental abuse, all those things," High said. "It may be something as simple as being their friend so they'll buy you stuff. Or being a friend, so you can take advantage of their disability and get into places. All the way up to physical, emotional and sexual abuse because they look like victims."

Thus, the first lesson in Mauro's class always begins with projection. That can range anywhere from standing up straight to looking at someone in the eyes to simply being vocal.

"A lot of these students here weren't confident with being loud," Mauro said. "That was one of the biggest things to overcome, just saying "YES SIR, SET!"

The Bridges program has been meeting twice a week with Mauro and his wife Tawnia since November. One such drill in the early weeks of lessons had students look into each other's eyes and maintain eye contact. It was uncomfortable for everybody, but an important lesson for the students in communicating their strength.

Many of the lessons have benefits beyond just self-defense. Students who can maintain eye contact and speak confidently are much more likely to be considered for employment when applying for a job.

"A lot of these guys when we talk to employers they'll say, 'Well I interviewed the guy, but he seems really timid, like he doesn't want to be here,'" High said. "But now they're sitting up tall and looking at them in the eye, and you're getting a whole different point of view from the interviewer."PHIL HAWKINS - Bridges student Prisilla Hernandez-Brado throws a punch at Nathaniel Mauro's Ascent Marial Arts class in Keizer.

And then there is simply the added benefit of physical fitness. The students in the Bridges program range from 18 to 21 years old and are transitioning out of the high school education curriculum. Without the benefit of a daily physical education program at school, many are prone to gaining weight, and part of the Bridges program teaches students where they can find ways outside of the school district to stay physically active — either through joining a gym, participating in intramural sports or going to classes like martial arts.

Mauro doesn't pull any punches when it comes to how difficult his classes are. They are designed to be challenging, to test physical abilities of all his students, not just those from the Bridges program. A former public school educator, Mauro bristles when he remembers colleagues who would encourage their students by telling them a lesson wasn't hard.

"When you tell somebody that something isn't hard and they fail, it makes them feel very self-conscious," Mauro said. "I love to tell people this is going to be hard."

If the students succeed, then they feel confident in overcoming an obstacle. If they struggle, then they know it's expected and it will require more effort to overcome.

"Everybody's got limitations, but the idea of challenging our limitations is a mental piece that is going to help them to grow beyond what I teach them," Mauro said. "If they can incorporate that idea of having a limitation, but pushing beyond that and see if I can get further beyond that, then they can reach further."

In pushing against their limitations, Mauro wants the Bridges students to understand that the consequences of failure are largely mental. Failure isn't so much a stopping point as it is an opportunity to learn from a mistake, he said.

"Even as an adult, I catch myself thinking, oh, I could fail. But I have to catch myself and think, OK, so what if I fail? Is there something I could use from that to help me succeed in the future?" Mauro said. "If you fail, that's fine. I want that. Experience many failures until you get to success."

This mix of challenge and optimism has been an immediate hit with High's students, more so than just about any class they have taken in recent memory.

"Every class we come back and we can't get anything else done because all they want to do is talk about the class and what they've just done," High said. "The amount of growth we've seen in the first few classes is incredible. We've gone from guys who were just standing there with their head down not saying anything to looking at the instructor and being vocal."

The Bridges students will finish their current class with Mauro with a demonstration of the skills they have learned over the past three months at 9:30 a.m. Jan. 10. From there, they will move on to their next curriculum, only with more confidence and with the increased ability to advocate both for themselves and for their colleagues in the program.

"I love these guys," Mauro said. "They really work well together because they know each other. Right from the get go they were really good about encouraging each other, because they want to succeed and they want their friends to succeed."

Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)