Marlborough martial arts program helps those with disabilities Thrive
MARLBOROUGH — Ryan Regan was nervous.
Viet Nguyen, owner of Kwon’s Martial Arts Center and Regan’s martial arts instructor, stood a few feet in front of Ryan holding a wooden board. Ryan had taken martial arts classes, but never broke a wooden board.
Ryan, 18, made a fist, threw a punch and seconds later the board was in two.
“He was very excited to break the wood,” said Eugenia Regan, Ryan’s mother.
Ryan, who is on the autism spectrum and has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is one of a handful of members of Thrive Support and Advocacy — a Marlborough-based organization providing social and support services for youths and adults with developmental disabilities — to take an adaptive martial arts course at Kwon's Martial Arts. Thrive and Kwon’s Martial Arts formed a partnership last year allowing Thrive clients to take martial arts classes once a week for little or no cost.
The class helps those with developmental disabilities build confidence and self-esteem, develop a positive mindset, persevere through adversity and strengthen teamwork skills in a comfortable setting.
“We make them feel like it’s a safe environment to try new things and feel like they’re not being judged,” said Nguyen.
Robert Gustafson, a member of Thrive’s board of directors and Nguyen’s business partner, brought the two parties together to form the partnership. Caitlin Devaney-Fortwengler, Thrive’s director of youth services, said those with disabilities are often vulnerable to bullying and abuse. The program teaches them how to protect themselves physically and emotionally, and instills confidence and self-esteem.
“It has been very well received,” she said.
Thrive members are also integrated with Kwon’s students who do not have developmental disabilities. That integration helps the students without disabilities learn patience, empathy and how to interact with those with disabilities. Thrive members are able to improve their social skills and patience through the interaction.
“You’re really creating benefits for both sides,” said Devaney-Fortwengler. “We’re opening their eyes to a different world."
Each 45-minute class begins with a warmup, stretching and some words of wisdom from Nguyen before the martial arts instruction begins. The repetitiveness of the exercises and instruction is beneficial, said Devaney-Fortwengler.
During shutdowns that occurred during the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, classes were held virtually. That was critical to ensuring the Thrive clients not only got exercise, but did not feel isolated.
“We knew we needed to be creative to avoid isolation,” said Devaney-Fortwengler.
One of the biggest accomplishments for Thrive students is breaking a wooden board.
“Breaking a board to a lot of individuals is a scary thing,” said Nguyen. “I use that as a tool to break their fears and build self-esteem.”
Nguyen, Devaney-Fortwengler and Regan have all noticed budding confidence in the Thrive students throughout the course of the program. Ryan’s favorite part of the martial arts classes is standing in line and doing the kicking and punching exercises.
“Ryan really enjoys it,” said Regan. “The program is good. (Nguyen) takes time if the kids need more help."
For more information on Thrive and the martial arts program, visit www.icanthrive.org.
Jeff Malachowski can be reached at 508-490-7466 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JmalachowskiMW.