Standing tall at five years old, Jonathan Elkayan looks a bit bigger and stronger than the other kids in his class.
It was not too long ago when he had been diagnosed with having slower developmental balance and gross motor skills.
“You would think when you see a kid like him, where he’s big and tall, you assume that he’ll be good at sports or know how to toss a ball or know how to hop on one leg, but he didn’t have that,” said parent Gali Elkayan.
But it wouldn’t be long until karate instructor Wayne Centra proved that Elkayan could live his life like any other kid. In just one year, Elkayan learned how to build confidence in himself, improve his gross motor skills, balance and follow directions. And it is all while doing what he loves — karate.
“He would ask me, ‘Can I come to karate every day?’ He loves it. Before, he had horrible coordination. Now his coordination has improved by 60 to 70 percent,” said Gali. “He is just getting better and stronger. It brought confidence in him and now he can feel like he can play with other kids.”
Centra began teaching karate as an occupational therapist for Children’s Hospital of Orange County in Orange when he came up with the idea of opening his own facility in Tustin.
“A lot of the kids were not physically engaging. I primarily worked with children that had cancer, and so I started doing karate in the kids’ room.”
For Centra, it is not the diagnosis that matters. He currently works with children who have a wide range of diagnoses from autism, social issues, emotional issues, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and cancer.
Having already 15 years experience in martial arts, Centra went on to teach karate for adults and children.
And it is no surprise that Centra has a way with the children.
“A lot of the kids who show up here don’t want to do anything. Within five minutes, he warms them up. They’re out there. They’re doing stuff. He’s always paying attention to every kid,” said Gali. “He knows how to read them. He knows when they need to be left alone. He knows how to draw them in.”
Karate for All enables students to use their motor and sensory skills. As early as three-and-a-half years old, students are paired up with an opponent and learn how to spar, which includes blocking, kicking and punching, among other activities such as running through an obstacle course; and every week offers something new.
But it’s not that easy to earn the different colored belts, with black being the highest level that a student can earn.
“They learn focus, they learn how to better obey. They are learning how to control their emotions, whereas a lot of these kids will pop off like that,” said parent Scot Duncan. “He snaps them back if they go out of focus, then they learn to not do that the next time. We as parents try but sometimes it’s a third party that helps.”
Since 2001, Centra has moved into his own facility. He currently manages karate and offers speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy.
Overall, it’s the sense of family that brings this community together. While students are learning how to block punches or throw kicks, parents are welcome to stay and observe their child from a close distance.
“You kind of always think your kid is going to be isolated, but then you find out there is a welcoming group where your kid can participate and have friends and be accepted and that’s terrific,” said parent of Michael Hutchinson.
For the parents, the most important part is that Karate for All helps students develop self-confidence in themselves.
“It’s really important for parents with kids with autism. You worry about them getting bullied, so to know that your child can have the ability to defend themselves and just to have self-confidence so that they won’t get picked on, it’s really comforting,” said parent of Michael Hutchinson.
Even when students enter the program feeling nervous and slightly excited, Centra teaches his students that working towards a goal by building self-confidence is the most important no matter what their disability may be.
“My goal of this program is to have all children learn self-defense skills and it’s important because of their condition. My overall goal in life is to decrease these children’s chances of them being physically assaulted, verbally assaulted or sexually assaulted in their lifetime,” Centra said.