MIDLOTHIAN, VA (WWBT) – James River special education teacher Kieley Thomas teaches students with special needs. Conditions range from autism to sensory process issues to physical disabilities and more. She was looking for some ideas for her physical education class, when she thought of Eric Rangel-Ribeiro, the Master at her children’s Taekwondo dojo, Gentle East Martial Arts.
“I had noticed how Master Ribeiro had worked with one of our students,” said Thomas, “and then I saw an article where he had run with another man, a blind man, in the Monument Avenue 10K with Sportable.”
Thomas had coached both of Master Ribeiro’s daughters at James River, so she knew him well enough to feel comfortable asking if he’d be willing to come to the school and teach her special education students some Taekwondo.
“It was pitched as something that we would try out for a couple of weeks,” Rangel-Ribeiro recalled, “and about the second week, I kind of knew in my mind that this was something that was going to be a year-long thing.”
Now, every Friday morning, these students are breaking boards, breaking barriers, and kicking away any ideas that disabilities can hold them back. Ribeiro says that he tailors each tutorial to the individual.
“We had a student, she used a walker, so we modify things to what the students are capable of doing. So even if they are sitting down on the floor, we find a way to have them participate and do kicks.”
Master Ribeiro has seen the program grow. What started as the idea of a James River teacher has spread into nine schools across Chesterfield County. Ribeiro visits them all on his own time, free of charge.
“These kids are simply amazing,” he said. “I come in here and I think they get a lot out of the program, but I get so much more because I see people at their best. I see them push themselves to try things that they’ve never done before.”
Thomas says Taekwondo Fridays are the one thing that every single student that she has gets happy and excited about, and her biggest takeaway is the joy she observes in them.
“They feel like they’ve accomplished something, they feel powerful, and that’s a great feeling to give anybody, the feeling of being powerful,” she said. “Not in a fighting sense, but just to have self power. I think that’s a great thing.”
“They have a blast,” adds Ribeiro. “There are times when they’ll do something and I will tear up or Coach Thomas will post a video of the kids doing something, and they’re like family. It’s building a personal connection with those students and again, that’s what it’s all about.”
Thomas says Master Ribeiro remembers the name of every student he teaches at all nine of the schools. Interest from other schools is pouring in, and Ribeiro is trying to get some help to put the program in more place. The instructor is hoping that the students take away from the class that the sky is the limit, and not just in Taekwondo.
“I hope they never put limitations on what they can do in their [lives]. I hope that they don’t listen to the people who tell them what they can’t do and they just keep proving what they’re capable of doing.”