By Alex Lippa
How do a karate chop or front kick make youngsters into better students and children at home?
Just ask their parents and peers.
After six weeks of hard work and training, some dedicated Haverhill High School students received their rewards in a ceremony on Tuesday morning. White belts in karate were presented to eight special needs students by Chris Daigle of Ocasio's True Martial Arts Academy as part of the Life Skills program at Haverhill High School.
The true gain had less to do with the belts and karate moves, and more with the work ethic and confidence the students gained.
"He's very thankful for this program," Amy Bowler said of her son Sean, who participates in the Life Skills program. "I'm glad that he has this opportunity. The kids need structure and hopefully this gives them more discipline as well."
Bowler sees Sean wanting to help out with chores and responsibilities around their home. She said her son will often help clean dishes or help with folding laundry.
The Life Skills program is designed to give students structure and basic life skills so that they are able to function better despite their emotional or behavioral disorders.
"The kids enjoy it very much," Aimee Mansfield, one of the teachers in the program, said of the martial arts training. "They are very enthusiastic about getting the belts."
"We want them to build skills so that when they leave they can have vocational opportunities," said Beth Kitsos, assistant principal at Haverhill High.
The students often do work around the school, which helps make them feel more part of the educational community. Every morning they bring in the newspaper from outside the entrance. They also deliver mail around the school, clean windows and re-stock the cafeteria's snack bar.
"We're trying to teach them to be more independent," Mansfield said. "We want them to be able to live in a community."
Life Skills starts at the Moody School's pre-kindergarten and students can stay in the program until they are 22 years old. The program stretches through the elementary and middle schools as well. The Life Skills students are also given the opportunity to mix in with other students at Haverhill High.
"They'll sit and eat in the cafeteria at the same time as everyone else," Kitsos said. "The other kids are very receptive and friendly to them when they see them in the hallways."
Some of the Haverhill High students help out with the program. Several of them hope to become teachers, and some help out with members of the program, which gives them some teaching experience.
Daigle, the martial arts instructor, was brought in to try to teach the Life Skills students discipline in a unique way. Daigle works with one of the parents of the students in the Life Skills program. He said he gets a lot from the one hour per week that he has spent with the students.
"It's a moment for me to take a look at the little things of life you can be happy about," Daigle said. "We all have hard days, but you truly can't see what other people go through until you see their standpoint."
Daigle encourages the students to learn respect and teaches them how to be confident by making direct eye contact when looking at whomever they are talking to. He also teaches them basic self-defense skills. When the students received their belts, he made them promise to always try their best, to never abuse their newly learned skills and to always be "a true martial artist." While the students received their belts on Tuesday, they will receive certificates of completing the program in two weeks during a ceremony at the martial arts academy.
With the success of the program at the high school level, Daigle is planning on expanding the program. He will be taking it to Nettle Middle School and eventually to other schools in Haverhill, so more special needs students can learn basic martial arts.
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