By Annette Hinkle; Photography by Laurie Barone-Schaefer
If you think little people can’t make a big difference, you would have been wise to drop by Michelle Del Giorno’s dojo at Epic Martial Arts last Tuesday.
That was the day Sag Harbor brothers Erik and Joe Guanga-Soliz, ages 8 and 10 respectively, organized a fundraiser for Shihan Robert “Bob” Mauro, Del Giorno’s Jujitsu instructor and a mentor for 18 years.
Mauro, a seventh degree black-belt with 46 years of experience, is a pretty powerful guy and owner of the U.S. Karate Academy which has dojos in Island Park and Huntington.
But his Island Park dojo was no match for an even more powerful force last October — Superstorm Sandy.
Mauro notes he has been in the Island Park location for 30 years (as of this week), but had never seen anything come ashore like what he witnessed with Sandy.
“Water’s never come in before,” said Mauro. “It came close in Irene, but it was nothing like this.”
“Sandy wiped it out,” added Mauro of his dojo. “It had 47” of water in it and needed to be totally rebuilt.”
“We almost had to knock it down,” added Mauro placing his hand against the mirrored wall at Epic Martial Arts to indicate just how high 47” of water really is. “It was out of commission. One part of the school opened in seven weeks. The other part is still not done. I lost my tenants, my offices … I have kids in college.”
And this is where the young fundraisers come in. In recent weeks, Erik and Joe worked to recruit more than 20 pint-size fellow Jujitsu students to take part in a special grappling class led by Mauro. Admission to the class was a suggested donation of $35 and all the money raised went directly to Mauro and his efforts to rebuild his dojo.
So last Tuesday, dressed in their white gis with various colored belts around their waists indicating their respective level, the young Jujitsu students paid close attention as Mauro gave them tips on grappling techniques and set them up to work in pairs.
“Jujitsu is grappling,” began Mauro. “You have to work hard to get good. You can’t do it for 10 minutes and take a break. If you do the same stuff over and over, you get better and better.”
The goal in the first exercise was for one partner to flip the other using a collar hold and shoulder technique. Like the organizers of the fundraiser itself, as kids went flying across the mats, the scene offered a rather apt metaphor for how in Jujitsu — and life itself — size doesn’t matter. Skill, focus and determination do.
For Del Giorno, make a positive difference in the lives of others is an important ancillary aspect of advancing through the ranks at Epic Martial Arts. As her students progress, with the increase in skills, strength and knowledge comes responsibility. As a result, she instills in her young students not only a strong sense of self, but a sense of their role in the larger world.
“It’s a philosophy of respect, kindness and self control,” explains Del Giorno. “What they learn on the mat they apply to being good citizens. The more kindness there is the less problems there are with bullying.”
“I don’t want them to forget respect and kindness,” she adds.
And that is why, beginning at the intermediate level, Del Giorno’s students are required to complete their own leadership project. She notes the efforts range from cleaning up beaches to leading community service projects through local schools.
Joe and Erik are currently moving from green to purple belts and in order to encourage fellow students to take part in last Tuesday’s fundraiser, the brothers peddled around a sign-in sheet in the weeks before and even made a YouTube video describing the plight of Mauro and his dojo.
While Del Giorno encourages her students to find their own projects if they can, if they’re at a loss about what to do, she’s ready to offer suggestions and can tap into a larger martial arts network for ideas.
“I do get many of my curriculum ideas, such as project based leadership training, from an online martial arts business community called The 100,” explains Del Giorno. “It’s a martial arts business ‘think tank’ where business owners from all around the world share ideas. It is facilitated by Tom Callos, who is a well respected and often quite boisterous leader in the martial arts community.”
“He’s also a mentor and a personal friend of mine,” she adds.
In the case of last week’s event, however, it was Del Giorno’s close ties with Mauro that made the fundraiser for his dojo a no-brainer. It also brought home to the kids the reality of the devastation Superstorm Sandy wrought on communities west of here.
“When Sandy was approaching, we talked about preparing for a hurricane and compared it to a self-defense situation and what happens when people are not taking it seriously,” says Del Giorno. “Then we heard of Bob’s school and the damage.”
That’s when Erik and Joe got to work. Persuasion and a well-crafted online pitch brought in the students — and the money.
In the end, they raised $800 for Mauro.
Not bad for a couple kids.