By Emily J. Weitz
As kids make out their lists for Santa Claus and tick through the many things they want to receive, it’s an opportunity to also teach them the value of giving. And not just in a material way – the value of giving of your efforts and your heart. This is the idea behind AOKs at Epic Martial Arts. AOKs – or Acts of Kindness – are incorporated into the curriculum as kids work towards their black belt. And no matter how well they can kick and punch, they won’t be considered advanced martial artists until they learn how to give of themselves.
The idea of practicing AOKs is “part of martial arts philosophy,” says Sensei Michelle Del Giorno, who runs Epic Martial Arts.
“When you’re a black belt, you’re a leader in the community. The philosophy of martial arts is all about respect, and perseverance. We try to use these core values and apply them to everyday life. We’re taking our teachings out of the dojo and into the world by showing our kids how to be kind to each other.”
This kind of teaching helps kids deal with issues that come up as they grow older.
“It transcends against bullying, helps with self defense,” Del Giorno said.
Every class, Sensei Michelle brings the kids together for mat chat.
“We talk about things that are happening and whatever we’re focusing on that week,” says Del Giorno. “Because of the holidays, our focus is these Acts of Kindness. Chats change month to month, but right now we’re talking about what we can give back to the community.”
Each year at this time, Epic Martial Arts engages students in leadership projects as a way to teach these principles. This year, Del Giorno decided to work with Alex’s Promise, a foundation close to her heart.
“Alex’s mom, Lisa, works at the desk at the karate school, so all the kids know her,” says Del Giorno. “And they are longtime family friends of mine.”
Alex Koehne, the foundation’s namesake, was a young Sag Harbor resident who lost his battle with a rare form of cancer a few years back.
“We were all shocked and saddened by Alex’s passing at such a young age,” says Del Giorno. “But we’ve found a great way to give back.”
Koehne, for her part, finds the kids’ spirit for giving back heartening.
“This means so much to me and my husband, and our girls,” she said. “It means so much that these kids care about other kids who don’t have what they have. It’s great to see.”
At this time of year, dealing with the devastating loss of her son is particularly hard, and when she sees the community coming together in his name, “It makes me feel good,” she says. “I want people to remember him. Sometimes people don’t know what to say, but for me it helps when people talk openly about the child I lost.”
Alex’s Promise raises money for scholarships for graduating seniors at Pierson as well as for cancer research through St. Jude’s Hospital.
“Alex always loved helping children,” says Del Giorno. “He was like a big brother to a lot of cousins and he comes from a big family. Being the oldest of four, he was always helping the kids, and the foundation honors Alex’s memory by continuing that legacy.”
This year, Del Giorno and the students at Epic are participating in Push-Ups for Pennies, where participants will do one push-up for every penny donated to the organization. Del Giorno kicked it off on Thanksgiving by doing 1000 push-ups throughout the day. She filmed herself in action so kids and donors could tune in to her web feed to see how she was committing herself.
“I kept going into the bedroom at my mom’s and doing push-ups,” says Del Giorno. “Every couple hundred I’d do another update. In the middle of one of my push-up sets my cousin came in and was like, ‘Michelle, dinner!’”
By 11:45 p.m., she had finished 1,000 push-ups, and now she’s asking the kids to join her. In sets of 25, even the four-year-olds are joining in.
“They all feel like they’re giving in some way,” says Del Giorno. “It’s exciting.”
And they are. Not only that, but they are loving it. When asked if they’d like to contribute to this article, the kids lined up to weigh in on why this is such an important cause.
Tori Markowski, Sara Schoen, and Lili Knibb, who are ages 8 and 9, wanted to share how good it makes them feel to help children in the hospital. Simone Batiste, age 9, feels strongly because of a personal connection to the cause.
“My friend had cancer and she was in 7th grade when she died,” she says, “and I like to help.”
Jhoziel and Erik Guanga, brothers, feel like they’re really making a difference.
Colin Harrison, age 8, says that “Each push up we do is worth a penny, and so far we’ve got $200. All that goes to St. Jude’s, which helps kids with cancer and other diseases.”
Carson Tompkins, age 8, really likes it “because it gets kids exercise and it’s for a good cause. You’re not just doing exercise,” he explains, “but you’re giving to kids who are less fortunate. My mom won’t give to Cheetah Serve or special fabric making companies, but she will give to St. Jude’s. This one is special.”
Johnny Nill, who just celebrated his 8th birthday, is Alex Koehne’s cousin. He was a toddler when he lost his older cousin, but he still remembers him.
“It’s a lot of work and it’s hard,” he says of the push-ups, “but I do it for Alex, and for the kids who are in the hospital. I remember Alex.”
To make a donation to Push-Ups for Pennies or Alex’s Promise, stop by Epic Martial Arts at 75 Main Street in Sag Harbor, or go to http://www.hicksvillekarate.com/sagharborny/ or www.alexspromise.org.