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GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Half a dozen children between 5 and 9 years old form a line facing the sensei and bow in respect.
Assuming the appropriate karate stance, they begin punching the air with their right fists, shouting with each jab, "One, sir. Two, sir. Three, sir."
While karate classes for children are held around the country every day, this class is special.
It's at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Greenville.
And these kids are on crutches, in walkers and braces, and wearing prosthetic limbs.
Shriners, which provides specialty orthopedic services to children regardless of ability to pay, is offering the class so these children with disabilities can build strength and coordination while having fun.
And 5-year-old Kyle Boswell, an active little towhead who suffers from familial spastic paraplegia, a genetic neuromuscular condition marked by leg weakness, just beams at his mom, who's watching from the back of the class, after every exercise.
"It's all he talks about now," Jennifer Boswell told The Greenville News. "It makes him feel very important to be part of something like that. He loves it."
Shriners kids get lots of physical therapy, of course. But incorporating karate is something new, and so far, it seems to be a success, according to physical therapist Chelsie Reed.
"They do a lot with different kinds of punches and kicking, and all of those require selectively controlling muscle groups, which for these kids is very important because they often lack coordination and balance," she said. "It challenges the kids to move in ways they may not typically move. And they have so much fun while they're doing it."
The class is possible because of Kevin Ballenger, owner of the Hurricane Martial Arts center in Greenville and already a Shriners volunteer.
For the past two years, Ballenger has been making popcorn for the kids every Thursday and thinking about how else he could help.
Then two months ago, 5-year-old Shriners patient Eva Madden came into his martial arts school.
"She's missing her right leg and has a prosthetic," he said. "But seeing her in class and how well she did, it got back to Shriners. And that got the ball rolling."
Karate seemed like a good fit for Eva from the start, said her mom, Cyndi Madden of Greenville.
"She really enjoys it," she said. "It's a good outlet for her. It's good exercise. Good discipline training. And like the sensei reviews with the children, she's learning courtesy and respect. Overall, it's a great activity for her."
Madden said she was always worried about how Eva's disability would affect her life. Would she be able to participate in sports and other normal childhood activities with her peers?
"But she's proven to me (through karate) that we shouldn't be worried," she said. "That she doesn't have very many limitations."
As the Shriners class begins, the children bow to Ballenger in the martial arts tradition. Then they assume what he calls the horseback riding stance, and follow his instructions, jabbing first forward, and then upward, uttering a shout to help with focus.
Next, the children line up at the kicking and punching bags, obviously a favorite exercise if the loud thuds from each blow and their eagerness to do it again are any indication.
"All those stances make their bodies stronger," he said, "and it helps build their self-confidence to be able to do those physical things that maybe they didn't know they could do."
Ballenger attends to each child personally, taking his or her individual disabilities into account.
"It's very exciting to see how much they listen to Kevin and respect him," said Reed. "And he respects them back."
Ballenger says the Shriners patients do more for him than he does for them.
"The kids are always willing to try hard and do their best. It's really good to see," he said."And when I see the smiles on their faces, that they're having a good time, and learning, that's the reward for me."
After a couple of classes, Ballenger will award the students a white belt, like any student at his school would get. And as they learn, they will get belts of different colors that correspond to their skill levels.
Boswell never thought it would be possible for Kyle to participate in karate. But he looks forward to every class and gives it his all.
"The biggest thing about having a child with a disability is you want them to be in extracurricular activities and with other children outside of school and Shiners gives us that opportunity," said the Travelers Rest woman.
"I love the fact that he gets to be with other children who are special in their own way," she added. "He doesn't have to feel like he's the only one different. He's not alone."
Besides enjoying it, she said, it helps him gain strength, making his disability less of an obstacle. And now she hopes he'll be able to join the scouts one day as well.
Karate has helped Eva Madden become physically stronger, more coordinated and agile too, her mom said. And the confidence Eva's developed after attacking and overcoming a challenge leaves her mom believing that the sky's the limit for her now.
"It's heart-warming for me, too, to see other children able to participate in karate who probably wouldn't have gotten the opportunity had Shriners not incorporated this class into their services," she said.
"You realize it's not just your child who has these kinds of challenges and needs. There are plenty of other children out there who are even more limited than your own sometimes," she added. "It's good to see that it can be helpful for so many kids."
Information from: The Greenville News, http://www.greenvillenews.com
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