I arrived back in Saint Louis a few days ago. One of my objectives for this visit is to review and reinforce the karate program at Maison de la Gare, with a particular focus on how to best support the young new talibe participants.
On my first night I checked in with the dojo Sor-Karate while the Maison de la Gare karate kids trained with their Sensei. The second night I visited the dojo again to see the younger group in action. Thursday nights is an opportunity for the younger kids to train at an earlier hour. This earlier than usual class was added a few months ago for the morning karate kids to have an opportunity to work on the mats and experience the more serious environment of the dojo. Many are not able to stay out quite as late as the older kids due to curfews at their daaras, or lack of permission from the marabouts who control their lives. I think this Thursday night class also helps these younger boys to really feel they are an important part of the karate program, with realistic hopes of advancing to higher belts and someday competing like the older boys. Indeed, several of them already have earned yellow belts. One is ready for orange. As we waited to enter the dojo, I gave donated red t-shirts, honouring giving and volunteerism to the boys. There were just enough to go around, and they were very happily received. Seven more boys arrived late for class, possibly having been held up by their marabouts or finishing up their forced begging quotas. Unfortunately, having the exact number of t-shirts was too good to be true after all. At the beginning of class, a group of the little ones grabbed traditional brooms and swept clean the mats in preparation for class. It seemed to be an honour they sought out. Then, another difficulty, four of the boys did not have their gis (traditional uniforms) and would not be able to train. I sadly thought of the dozen extra donated uniforms I brought with me, back at the hotel. I will ensure this does not happen again by giving the instructor five or so extra gis to carry with him to class. I consoled the little ones who watched from the sidelines with granola bars and some hand sanitizer, which satisfied them entirely as they dabbed it all over themselves as if it were a fine perfume.
I was so impressed with the discipline, determination and joy of karate these little begging street boys displayed during their two hour training. After class I was approached by one of the younger kids who wanted me to know how happy they were to have karate. My heart felt too big for words. When class was done, they ran off into the night, most of them barefoot, back to their lives of forced begging far from their families and home.
The next day I trained with the morning class, having promised them I would the night before. One or two did not believe I could be a black belt until they saw it for themselves in person. I loved practicing with the kids. One boy, Amadou, practiced his Heinan Nidan kata in preparation for an anticipated invitation to test for his orange belt. Grading here is a serious thing. I have attended three gradings and there seems to be about a 50% pass rate. Expectations are high, and thus so is the level of preparation.
In the afternoon I had a good meeting with the people responsible for maintaining the karate program to discuss how best to advance the karate program. Some of the older boys were feeling discouraged that it takes so long to advance to higher belts. However, it seems information and managing expectations are the key. When the students were told that it is usual for an increasing number of months to pass between invitations to grade as belt levels rise, and that it is a similar process at my own dojo, as well as at most around the world, they were satisfied, appreciative even. The sensei will establish an ongoing communication plan to keep the all the karate kids informed of expectations for advancement and of their individual progress toward higher belts. We also decided to add an extra day of morning training for the little ones at the centre, as often different children visit Maison de la Gare on different days, and we want to offer greater opportunity for more begging street kids to take advantage of the unique opportunity to learn karate and become part of something special. We decided to organize an "in house" tournament to be held at Maison de la Gare every four months, to demonstrate the progress of the karate kids, allowing them to shine in front of their peers, to prepare them for future competitive opportunities, and to raise awareness of the program and make karate more accessible to more kids. Finally, the supplementary meal plan will be advanced to include the Thursday night kids as well. Last year when I was here with my son, Robbie Hughes (the founder of the Maison de la Gare karate program), as we trained side by side with the boys we realized they were becoming faint and had to take regular breaks due to lack of nourishment. They had been expending more calories during karate that they likely consumed the entire day. To resolve this we established a system of providing tickets after training which the boys could redeem at a local restaurant for a meal.
At the end of the day I made my way to the dojo again, this time for training for the older kids. I arrived after training, in time to hear Sensei orienting the students about expectations for belt grading, realistic timelines, and what life opportunities can be provided by karate. He pointed out that although the years of training are long and not always easy, the effort can be rewarded in so many ways. He explained the sense of personal achievement and purpose offered by karate, a sense that most of these boys already feel. And he pointed out that in Senegal, a black belt can open doors for good work as a security guard, and that the skills of martial artists are universally accepted in most countries and regions and they would be accepted and comfortable in many dojos outside of this one. Sensei told the boys that the unique opportunity to do karate was thanks to Robbie Hughes, me, and generous donors from the other side of the world. Wait a minute...gratitude is not what I want these boys to feel. I explained that sponsorship such as they receive is something given to worthy candidates because they deserve it, they have earned it, and good people around the world feel lucky to have the chance to help other good people who deserve that help. The Sensei explained it is also important for the children to feel gratitude, in order to better appreciate their opportunity. I can accept that. And, karate is about respect and humility, after all. But, it feels odd to accept such gratitude when giving is such a reward in itself. I do know, however, that we surely are doing something good here.
Project Reports on GlobalGiving are posted directly to globalgiving.org by Project Leaders as they are completed, generally every 3-4 months. To protect the integrity of these documents, GlobalGiving does not alter them; therefore you may find some language or formatting issues.
If you donate to this project or have donated to this project, you will get an e-mail when this project posts a report. You can also subscribe for reports via e-mail without donating.
We'll only email you new reports and updates about this project.
Support this important cause by creating a personalized fundraising page.Start a Fundraiser