Life with Gracie: Cobb teen engages kids with disabilities in martial arts

On most any Friday night, you can find Marcus McAbee on the mat at Karate Atlanta Kennesaw.

It isn’t the kind of thing most 16-year-olds will give of their time to after a long week of AP classes, but make no mistake, Marcus isn’t a typical kid. Never has been.

Even at just 10, he knew as any good fighter does that sizing up your opponent before the first strike lands is essential to successful sparring. One look at his opponent that night, and he knew he’d come out on top. Christopher wasn’t just hard of hearing, he was blind, which meant he had to use his hands to feel how tall Marcus was and Marcus had to don jingle bells just so Christopher could tell where he was.

“I was thinking kids like him couldn’t defend themselves like I could,” Marcus remembered recently.

They hadn’t been sparring long before Marcus realized he’d sized up his opponent all wrong.

“He hit me pretty hard and it made me realize I shouldn’t train with him any different from anyone else,” Marcus said. “He was very good.”

Leaving the gym that night, Marcus had an epiphany. He hadn’t had much experience with anyone with disabilities, but clearly they were a lot more capable than his fifth-grade self ever believed possible.

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While his mom, Lisa, teased him about getting his butt kicked, Marcus was thinking about Christopher and why he didn’t see more kids like him in his taekwondo classes. He remembered a favorite saying of his taekwondo instructor, Greg Arcemont: “If it is to be, it is up to me.”

“The way he wanted us to take that is if you want to achieve a goal, to get that next belt, it’s all up to you,” Marcus explained. “You do the work.”

That fall night in 2012, Marcus realized his work was to provide a place for people with disabilities to practice martial arts just like “typical” kids. He and his mom talked about that and then began throwing out possible names for an organization that encouraged kids with disabilities to enroll in taekwondo. They wanted it to connote giving. Hearts 4 Others seemed appropriate. They agreed Marcus would aim for something big and teach as many kids as possible.

They immediately started laying the groundwork, sharing their dream with anyone who’d listen at area elementary and middle schools. By March the next year, they were ready to go and opened their first martial arts clinic at Big Shanty Elementary to 30 boys and girls with a range of developmental disabilities.

For 30 minutes, he put them through stretching exercises and jumping jacks, then progressed into teaching them how to hold their fist the right way and punch straight to break boards. Marcus had taught taekwondo before, but this was different. Some students had sensory issues, so he had to be careful. He couldn’t touch their hands or stand in too close to talk to them. “I had to rethink the way I got my points across to them,” he said.

But he didn’t give up. When the class ended, he gave each student a T-shirt and an official martial arts white belt. With big smiles on their faces, they asked when they could do it again as they filed out of the gym. Marcus felt good.

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Attending this first class was Cobb County Adaptive P.E. instructor Patrick Fox, who connected Marcus to Corey Goldstein, a special needs teachers in the Cobb school district, and that did it. Goldstein sensed right away he and Marcus were of the same mind. Students with disabilities are students with abilities.

“Marcus exemplifies that to a tee,” Goldstein said. “We have students with traumatic brain injury, Down syndrome, learning disabilities; the whole gamut. Marcus doesn’t see that. He doesn’t see race, creed, nor nationality. He sees a human being, and his love for this population is exponential.”

Since that night, Marcus has led countless in-school workshops at Cobb County elementary, middle and high schools. He has run two summer programs and holds a weekly class every Friday night, free of charge to the community.

For the past four years, he has taken his students to compete in regional taekwondo tournaments, and now he's filling the Special Abilities ring with 10 of his own students. More recently, he has extended his efforts beyond the martial arts studio, giving students the chance to compete in a triathlon. The tournaments and triathlon were paid for through donations — because it does cost to get them there, about $100 per kid. You can help with that. Just log onto www.hearts4others.org, click on donate.

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To date, more than 200 special needs students have benefited from his efforts. When Marcus founded Hearts 4 Others, he hoped the organization would have a big impact, but he didn’t think it would be still ongoing six years later.

“I like hearing how they come home talking about what they did and they come back the next week still talking about what they did last week,” Marcus said. “It’s really nice to see that they appreciate what they can accomplish, whether it is on their own or with me.”

Goldstein isn’t surprised. Marcus’ attitude is infectious, he said. “Marcus puts them in a good mood and shows them that they can do things,” he said of Marcus, now a sophomore at Kennesaw Mountain High School. “The kids gravitate to him because they know he believes in them. He believes everyone is capable of something.

“In the classroom, we measure students by test scores, papers, reports. Marcus measures his success by the number of smiles from participants and parents. You will never see a kid walk out of his class with a scowl on his face.”

Yep, I’d say that’s priceless.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.