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By Michael Allen - Staff Correspondent
As an eighth-degree Taekwondo black belt and long standing instructor of the martial arts, Master Young Joon Yoo has helped instill confidence and self-discipline in thousands of students through Taekwondo.
Yet in all his years of teaching and training, there was a special student who Yoo said taught him a few lessons. In 1999, he began private taekwondo lessons at his Taekwondo Seoul studio in Suwanee. with Nick, a 10-year-old with severe mental and physical disabilities. “He was 10 years old, wearing a diaper, and it was a challenge for him to stay focused,” Yoo said. Despite Nick’s limitations, Yoo was persistent in teaching him the disciplines of Taekwondo.
The patience paid off. Just six months into his private lessons, Nick no longer needed to wear a diaper and showed increased focus and physical ability. Nick continued his training with Yoo, and seven years into the program, Nick had earned a black belt in Taekwondo.
Yoo earned his first black belt at 8 years old in 1967, and trains pupils who compete in elite international tournaments, but he said it was Nick’s growth that gave him the confidence and patience needed to train special-needs students.
Around the time he began training with Nick, Yoo began volunteering by teaching Taekwondo therapy in special-needs classes at several schools in Gwinnett County. That work led him to create a special class at his studio.
Since 2000, Yoo has hosted a class for children and adults with learning disabilities twice a week at his studio in Suwanee.
The class currently has 10 students, many of them who have trained under his guidance for years.
From the outside, the class looks like any other martial arts class. However, Yoo considers it a therapy session for the students. Each student is dressed in white doboks, the traditional martial arts uniform bearing the Taekwondo Seoul logo. The hour-long session begins with a swift warmup, usually a few laps walking or jogging around the padded floor of the room. Students then line up to stretch before they transition into punching and kicking drills using kicking pads. The class winds down as students ease into a bit of fun by tossing around a ball and ending with the pledge of allegiance.
Yoo says that other Taekwondo schools lack classes tailored to special-needs students. They are mixed into large traditional classes with 20 to 30 students, which can discourage students who struggle with social interaction and learn at a slower pace, Yoo said.
“The public thinks Taekwondo is just kicking and punching, but it’s actually therapy for special-needs students,” Yoo said.
That leads parents to literally go the extra mile to put their children in his class.
“Most Taekwondo schools are integrated, so that’s why parents drive 40 to 50 minutes to be a part of the class,” Yoo said.
Wayne Menser has brought his son, Michael, to Taekwondo Seoul for the past 11 years and marveled at his son’s growth.
“He’s enjoyed it from day one and he’s worked his way up to a black belt,” Menser said. “So he’s gotten a tremendous sense of accomplishment from it and has made a lot of friends.”
Michael’s father said he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, a condition that affects a person’s ability to communicate with others, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Graham Goodwin first began working with Yoo as a special-needs student at Collins Hill High School. He enjoyed the Taekwondo so much, his father decided to sign him up for the special class.
“There’s not another program around that allows these special-needs kids to come together,” said Graham’s father, John Goodwin.
Many of the students have trained together for years, allowing them to form a unique and important bond that extends outside of the classroom.
“What attracted us is that it’s great socialization skills for these guys,” Menser said. “They are in a large group interacting together and they get friendships, which is a challenge for them.”
The class is open to special-needs students of all ages; the youngest student is 6 and the oldest is 42-year-old Ian Coursey. Coursey left and then returned to the class after undergoing multiple brain surgeries that temporarily cost him the ability to walk and talk.
“It’s been fantastic,” his sister, Lisa Coursey, said. “Ian doesn’t have a lot of activities during the day, he doesn’t have a whole lot going on so this really is a great outlet for him physically and mentally.
“He was excited to get his black belt last year which was a big deal for us because he had to have emergency brain surgeries the year before. He recovered from that and was able to get his black belt. He enjoys it a lot, it’s a great way to get exercise in a very controlled setting in a safe environment.”
Yoo welcomes all students to the class, but he notes that younger students benefit the most from Taekwondo therapy because their brains are still developing.
“Younger kids are more observant of the routines of martial arts,” Yoo said.
That’s why he was disappointed when the Gwinnett County Public School officials stopped him from volunteering at elementary and middle schools several years ago. He said officials cited a rule that says no outside employees can work with students during school hours.
Despite the setback, he continues work at Collins Hill, Duluth High School and New Directions for Autism, a special education school in Suwanee.
Collins Hill High student Chris Palk is a volunteer instructor who helps Master Yoo lead the class.
“I first came to Taekwondo to practice, and then I saw that they had a special-needs program that needed volunteers, so I started to help and got attached,” he said. “It has helped me learn how to teach others, and I’ve built a bond with the students since we’ve been together a year now.”
When’s he not teaching martial arts, Yoo has mastered the art of business. He owns Executive Clothing Care, an award-winning dry cleaning business in Duluth.
In the meantime, he’s happy to help improve people’s lives through Taekwondo.