Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Yeison de los Santos easily could have wandered off the right path.
“There were many chances for me to go the wrong way,” he recalls. He credits his study of tae kwon do with keeping him headed in the right direction. “That saved me.”
Immigrating to the United States at age 20, he spent his first four years practicing the martial art in his uncle’s backyard; he couldn’t afford the pricey lessons. “It broke my heart,” he says.
Now 38 and a Morristown police officer, the fifth-degree black belt works to prevent such heartaches among local youngsters. Known to the kids as “Mr. Jason,” he runs the youth program at the Morristown Tae Kwon Do Club, giving children and teens the chance to learn the sport and tae kwon do’s life lessons at an affordable price.
On Saturday, more than 50 youngsters and a few adults participated in a club competition at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer. The night before, Jason and some of his students polished the parish house floor as their way of giving back to the Morristown church that periodically hosts them.
In 10 years, youth participation in the club has grown from 10 children to 108. A total of 240 have participated over the decade, Jason says, with youngsters starting as young as 4 or occasionally 3. A 5-year-old recently tested for his red belt, one level below black belt, and broke an adult board — thicker than what youngsters usually tackle. “He broke it no problem, better than any adult.”
While the kids learn kicking and punching, however, Jason sees larger goals. “My goal is to find the best way in life: being flexible and adaptable,” he says.
“Tae kwon do is ‘the way of kicking and punching.’ … Through the kicking and punching, you’re going to find your way. I’m an example of that. It goes from physical to mental to a highest level, which is spiritual. Not many people get there. I wish someday I could be there.”
Children of varied races and ethnicities attend, but the majority of the students are Hispanic. Most students come from the Morristown area, but others hail from Dover, Parsippany and Paterson.
“Some of them are ‘at risk,'” Jason says. “My philosophy is, it takes 20 kids to save one person. It takes a community to save one person. … Respect’s number one in our class: Respecting little things, big things, stronger, weaker, everybody and everything, and mainly respecting and valuing life.”
“Some of the kids here … if they didn’t have tae kwon do in their lives, they would be in trouble,” he says.
The youngsters bring in their report cards and tests, earning special patches for academic achievement, says the club’s director, Robin Robertson, known to the kids as “Ma’am.” Teens earning A’s and B’s merit special uniforms as members of the “Red and Black Club.”
“It makes me feel that I put a lot of effort in the jobs I’m doing to get those patches,” says one green-belted girl.
Those earning black belts do more then learn the right moves. They perform community service, write a personal essay, do a research project, get recommendations, clean the school and pay for the belts themselves, Robin says.
As they advance, students also take responsibility in the classroom. “Part of the training is to help other kids,” she says. “We believe you learn by teaching.”
“My son’s gotten up and taught a class,” says Megan Buell of Morristown, whose 7-year-old, Jack, has studied tae kwon do for almost three years. “We love it, ’cause it’s just so much more besides tae kwon do.”
“It’s a family,” she says.”Everybody helps out. They support each other.”
Jason treats the students as individuals, she adds. “He doesn’t just treat them like kids. … I’ve seen children learn faster than anywhere else. It’s not threatening or intimidating.”
Black belt Jean Carlo Pineda, 16, the DJ for Saturday’s competition, started studying tae kwon do 11 years ago. “I fell in love with it the minute I started,” he recalls.
The lessons have paid off outside the club, he says. “You learn respect to others and yourself. You learn how to avoid problems in the streets, whether they’re physical problems like fights or verbal problems. I feel like, if it wasn’t for tae kwon do, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I probably wouldn’t have avoided as many problems as I’ve avoided and probably would be in the streets right now.”
The Morristown High School junior says he hopes to study criminal justice at college and become a police officer. Jason, he says, has “influenced me without even trying. He’s always been a father role model to me.”
Tae kwon do is “a lot of fun,” reflects a younger girl. “It’s not like, say, soccer — you do a couple of games, and they give you four trophies. [Here], you have to earn it to get it. You do more, you get more.”
One of the club’s special success stories is 12-year-old Ryan May, an autistic student who has studied tae kwon do for six years.
“It’s just had a dramatic impact on his listening skills, his sense of balance and his sense of acceptance with all these typically developing kids — and their parents,” says his father, Dave. “When he got his purple belt, half the parents were crying, too. The other kids take care of him.”
“What Jason has done, and Ma’am as well, they’ve fostered a sense of community,” says Lance Davis, whose 7-year-old son Lance has studied for four years.
“I don’t do this for the money,” Jason says. “I love the kids. … God put tae kwon do in my life for a reason.”