When his close friend and black belt karate student Ricky Duarte took his own life in 2008, Bridgewater Martial Arts owner John Hatfield was in the planning stages of making Duarte’s dream of a karate program for autistic children a reality.
Duarte’s son Alex, who was 8 at the time of his dad’s death and has autism, is now one of Hatfield’s students.
“I thought this would be a good fit, but now I’m 100 percent convinced,” Hatfield said.
Hatfield, who has been studying karate since he was 9 years old nearly four decades ago, said he’s seen firsthand the power of martial arts to transform lives.
“There’s something magical about martial arts,” he said.
“Anyone who comes into a martial arts program leaves a better person, less angry, a better learner, more patient, a better worker,” he said.
Whatever that magic is, it is particularly potent when it comes to children on the autism spectrum, who typically struggle in social settings, such as group sports.
“In martial arts, they have to interact with each other socially but their progress is individually measured,” Hatfield said.
Hatfield has teamed up with childhood friend Maureen Hancock, a well-known psychic medium from Bridgewater, who has been working with children with autism for years.
In June, the two launched the non-profit Kids Action Initiative (KAI) to provide martial arts therapy to kids on the autism spectrum. They held a fundraiser in June at Port 305 in Quincy to help parents send their children to the program.
The classes are held Thursdays at 5 p.m. and Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. at the studio at 27 Perkins St., Bridgewater.
Kristina Lutz, whose son Gunner, 8, has Asperger’s Syndrome, said he has trouble making eye contact and tends to fixate on things. He can memorize an entire book and repeat it, but he doesn’t necessarily connect with the underlying story.
Gunner, a strapping young man with a shock of strawberry blond hair, shines in the KAI karate class and has become a role model for younger, newer students.
Lutz, of Brockton, said her son looks forward to the classes and she uses them as a “catalyst for good behavior.”
“We’ve tried team sports, but it doesn’t work. If someone takes the ball away, he’ll storm off. Martial arts is not competitive against another team. You compete against yourself,” she said.
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