Karate Kids 

Saving at-risk youth in crime-infested Hillside Court — one kick at a time.

"Everybody's talking about gang prevention," Hicks says. "But we have to work on the person first. And the martial arts are designed for kids with needs."

Hicks has been an avid student of Master J.K. Kim for two years, ever since his wife and two young sons convinced him to follow in their footsteps and take lessons, too, from Kim at his U.S. Tae Kwon Do College in Chesterfield County. In that time, Hicks has earned a red belt. He's also progressed enough to help Kim instruct the children and teens in the pilot program at Hillside Court.

The way Hicks sees it, Tae Kwon Do offers youth a level playing field and encourages diversity. It exposes them to Asian culture, for example, and is also an activity that girls and boys can do together with equal degrees of skill. And unlike other competitive sports, such as a game of pickup basketball that, by nature, emphasizes aggression, Tae Kwon Do stresses the importance of respecting a person's space. "I think it's a model that's better than anything," Hicks says.

So far, about 30 young people from Hillside Court seem to think so, too. Classes are held for an hour on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at the complex's community center. Minutes before class begins — punctuality is key — students ages 5 to 16 file into the center's blue-and-white cinderblock recreation room, exchanging the smoldering heat outside for the slightly less sweltering indoors. They take off their shoes and place them in a line at the front of the room. The students wear white Tae Kwon Do uniforms with the pant legs rolled up at their ankles. Today's class comprises 16 boys and girls of various ages and heights who stand before Hicks in three rows and, most notably, at attention. He leads the class in warm-up exercises, jumping jacks, deep and deliberate breathing, and stretches.

Next, Master Kim steps in.

"Master Kim likes always the serious student," he tells the group. Donning a royal blue uniform with the unmistakable black belt, Kim wears a resolute expression, which lets the kids know he means business. "I want to see who is the best student here," he presses.

At Kim's cue, the students practice what's called a double punch wherein they lunge forward and strike the air first with their right fist, then their left. With each thrust, the class mimics Kim, almost in unison, in uttering a guttural and punctuated "Tae-Kwon-Do."

All heads face forward; all eyes follow Kim. In between his instructions, there is silence. Even the younger children appear to pay attention, despite the giggles that escape here and there. After covering a series of basic moves more or less to Kim's satisfaction, the group works on exercises in self-defense. The first one is what Kim calls one-step sparring.

He calls on Shavonte Russell, 15, to help demonstrate. As much as respect, readiness for your opponent is key, Kim says. He waits for Russell to poise himself, then nods and lunges toward the teen, at once exclaiming a loud "Ya!" Kim throws a punch that stops abruptly and is held frozen in the air barely an inch away from Russell's face. Some of the children grow wide-eyed at the feat; others let out a soft laugh.

Donna Roberts has come to expect as much. Her sons Marquise and Quandre, and her daughter, Tatiynna, have been attending Kim's classes since they began six weeks ago. The siblings had never heard of martial arts, let alone Tae Kwon Do, she says, but they quickly embraced it. And Roberts says she's pleased with the early results. After all, she points out, the qualities of respect and responsibility that Kim fosters spill out of the classroom. As part of the program, the students are required to report back to class with a kind of scorecard showing that they've helped out at home. "They do their chores better now," Roberts says, adding: "When we go out to dinner, say, at Applebee's, they talk to the waiter politely and say 'yes, sir,' and 'no, sir.'"

Kim calls on volunteers to come up, one by one, and display their blocking techniques, while Hicks meanders about correcting stances. In several weeks when school begins, classes will be held later in the afternoon, Kim says.

When asked what he makes of Tae Kwon Do, Russell, 15, grasps a reporter's hand and bows respectfully. "It makes me feel more confident in myself," he says. "It builds physical strength, but also a kind of strength that's inside the body." A rising sophomore at Franklin Military, Russell plans to attend the free classes year-round.

"Tae Kwon Do gives you peace with yourself, and it teaches you that you don't have to fight," he says. "When you refrain from hitting someone that's when you have self-control, when you really know your abilities." S

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