“Students learn self-defense, but often find self-empowerment.”

Getting A Kick Out of Self-Defense
by Cindy Wong

When Alice Billman saw the number of disadvantaged children living in North Miami three years ago, she got right to work.

Instead of volunteering with the a local civic group, Billman, co-owner of Kung Fu Connection, rallied "Heroes Unite" her nonprofit organization to help underprivileged children in the community. The organization is affiliated with the martial arts school.

"There's such a strong need," Billman said, noting that most of her students were latchkey kids. "You'll see all this potential wasting away because it's not being fulfilled. If you can't take care of the youth, who's going to take care of our future if you don't provide them with what they need to be successful?"

The 7-year-old organization first worked with terminally ill children but changed its focus after Billman saw more poor children in North Miami.

It's newest program, Victory Over Violence, began in February and gives children with abuse backgrounds free lessons at the center while encouraging "self-empowerment" and "self-defense". The desire for the new program sprang from Billman's personal history and the murder of a former instructor, she says.

She visited a transitional housing shelter to get feedback about the program. The mothers were enthusiastic, she said. A $5,000 county grant covered the 14 students' enrollment, uniforms and transportation, she said.

"They were happy that their kids weren't going to be like them," she said. "They were saying they had wished they had a program like this earlier [in their lives]".

Gus Cuervo-Rubio, Billman's husband and founder of the school, says helping the community is part of the martial-arts philosophy. Growing up in North Miami, he said his kung fu teacher became his father figure.

"The purpose of shaolin is to make the world a better place and that translates to helping people," he said. "There are goals that are set and as people accomplish the goals, they're being challenged physically, mentally, and endurance-wise."

The school has a history of taking in troubled youth, many of whom speak reverently of Cuervo-Rubio.

"I tell you, kung fu has been a way out of trouble for me instead of being on the streets or being in gangs," said Frank Sotolongo, 35, a part-time instructor who started there when he was 13. "I was in an environment where if you didn't watch your back, you could be a victim. I am very grateful to my teacher, Gus Rubio."

The first program, the Shaolin After School Care program, began three years ago. It offers after-school transportation, tutoring, cultural enrichment lessons and kung fu classes to students. It costs $135 a month and is partly funded by a county grant.

"You're trying to create values versus teaching what's right from wrong, or about accomplishing goals," Billman said. "You're coming from a profound, deeper perspective, where it's the level of self-respect or self-esteem that becomes the foundation."

Oscar Alvarez, 27, instructor and former student, says kung fu helped him control his anger and aggression when he was a youth. Growing up in North Miami, Alvarez stayed home alone while his mother worked two jobs. He failed third grade and regularly skipped classes during elementary school. Now, he wants to pay back the school.

"It's giving back to the community," he said. "Me being a latchkey kid ­ being with this family is nice."

But don't expect students to be treated differently because of their backgrounds.

All students get the same treatment. Instead of time-outs, students get shaolin-style training that occurs in the back of class. One method has an after-school student in a prolonged deep squat position while carrying a wooden pole that holds a full bucket of water over homework papers. Another is to hold two full buckets of water while standing on one leg on a block. If students break their posture, they must repeat the exercise to a harder degree.

"The idea is for them to take responsibility for their own actions," Billman said.

The organization has plans to help other people with martial arts, such as the elderly and children with attention deficit disorders. However, it needs more financial help and volunteers to make the programs grow, Billman said.

Still, students who have worked in the Heroes United programs say it's groundbreaking in it's unique efforts. Instructor's aide and student Steven Cadavid, 19, tutored and instructed children in the after-school program. He has attended many different martial-arts schools since he began at age 5.

"A lot of schools try to get as much money as they can from kids," he said, citing personal experience, "or show some interest in the children when the parents come in. But it's not like that here. We take them in as our own."

©2001 miamiherald and wire service sources.
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