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“The five tenets are courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit,” Katarina tells me about her school’s teachings, “That’s kind of like our biggest thing is indomitable spirit. Like, don’t give up, you have that strong spirit, you gotta keep going.”

Breaking Barriers Martial Arts

Breaking Barriers Martial Arts Disabled Students

For the last five years, Katarina Eckstein-Schoemann’s nonprofit organization, Breaking Barriers Martial Arts, has been helping disabled students in Florida learn self-confidence, discipline and independence through Taekwondo classes. Katarina started the organization back in 2011 with just one student after her two brothers, who are on the autism spectrum, found great success in martial arts training. Back then, she was just a teenager, but despite her small start, the school now hosts four classes per week for about 20 students with various disabilities.

She got the idea for the school, she tells me, when her family enrolled in a Taekwondo class together. She laughs as she says their interest was piqued by Avatar: The Last Airbender and decided to give David Turnbull’s class a try back in 2007. “He’s just amazing and he worked very well with my brothers and it was just a very fun environment,” she says. When Turnbull started a new studio, she asked if she could rent out the facilities for classes twice a week.

Breaking Barriers Martial Arts Disabled Students

The individual focus of Taekwondo, where you can progress at your own pace and compete against yourself instead of against others, was a great thing for her two younger brothers. It helped their confidence greatly, Katarina tells me, “It was very much a turning point when they earned their first degree black belts.”

This was a breakthrough – her family had tried all kinds of sports and activities that didn’t quite have the same benefit. “We tried baseball, soccer, we even tried dance for a bit and nothing really fit them.” Then a family friend told them about Taekwondo classes and everything began falling into place.

Breaking Barriers Martial Arts Disabled Students
Breaking Barriers Martial Arts Disabled Students

Katarina is a pretty girl who attends the University of Florida and has a friendly, cheerful attitude – a seemingly average college girl, in other words – but unlike the average college student, she needed to ask her family to help her run the nonprofit she had built before she went off to school. And unlike the average business, her school is dedicated to sharing the knowledge and skills that have helped her family so much.

It becomes clear throughout our conversation that martial arts are something she feels anyone can benefit from and that she focuses on disabled students because they shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to these benefits.

“I did sports a lot in high school and nothing can compare to martial arts,” she says, “I feel like everyone can get so much benefit out of it. It’s just so diverse. I’m not really a sparring person but I love forms and my dad’s the opposite. I feel like everyone can find their little niche and it is a family activity, it is a friend activity, it’s for all ages, it’s just a really great time.”

Breaking Barriers Martial Arts Helps Disabled Students

Breaking Barriers Martial Arts Disabled Students

This same sentiment can be felt at every level of Breaking Barriers Martial Arts. The instructors at the school are made up of family friends, people who have worked with children with disabilities, and acquaintances from Turnbull’s classes. The community is supportive as well – Katarina tells me that this past August the school held its first tournament along with a fundraiser that had a large turnout and received a great deal of support.

In addition to all the help she has received from her friends and the community, she emphasizes that her parents have been her biggest support system. “They really have shown me the way. I mean, this program wouldn’t have been possible without them.”

When asked about difficulties, Katarina answers like any other teacher would – that it can be a challenge to give each student the attention they deserve. Breaking Barriers Martial Arts strives to cater classes to individual student needs, and this adds to the challenge that instructors normally face. With her students, it is important to adapt the program to fit different abilities. She has help in this area from her organization’s roots – for instance, A.A.U. Taekwondo’s system for wheel chair sparring provides valuable knowledge and techniques for her school to draw from.

Breaking Barriers Martial Arts Disabled Students
Breaking Barriers Martial Arts Disabled Students

With Katarina’s experience, it’s not hard to see why she would say that “knowledge is power” when it comes to disability. This seems to be the driving force behind Breaking Barriers Martial Arts – to give disabled students, their families, and the community more knowledge and therefore more power. Katarina feels the public is becoming more accepting of disability, but that people should try to understand it better in order to make even further progress. One of her two brothers was just accepted to college, which gives her a strong case for saying,

“They’re just people like us – they have dreams, they have wants, they have needs, they are smart, they just have a different pathway of getting there.” Breaking Barriers strives to provide that pathway.

Breaking Barriers Martial Arts, Inc.
Peter Schoemann
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