Vermont Visionaries: Kellie Thomas, Tae Kwon Do Instructor | Children VT | Seven days

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  • Cat Cutillo
  • Holden, 3, trains with Kellie Thomas in her preschool class in Vergennes

Three years ago, when Kathy Atwood’s granddaughters started taking tae kwon do lessons, she and her husband, Bruce, started going to school to watch the girls take the tests needed to pass. to the next row. Both girls punched, kicked and broke boards with their feet. It looked so fun that Kathy convinced her husband and daughter, Samantha Atwood, the girls’ mother, to join the class with her. Now all five take lessons together, twice a week, at TaeKwon Do KICKS in Orwell.

“It’s a great opportunity to be able to share something with our granddaughters,” Kathy said. “A lot of grandparents don’t have an activity that they share with their grandkids.”

Family-style classes are the norm at TaeKwon Do KICKS This is how owner Kellie Thomas learned the Korean martial art as a child. Her experience was so positive that she brought it to all four of her schools. In addition to Orwell, TaeKwon Do KICKS offers classes in Middlebury, Vergennes and Hinesburg. The students are aged from 18 months to seventy years.

Thomas takes inclusion beyond siblings, children, parents and grandparents. Not only does it encourage people of all ages to sign up, but it also recruits people whose lives vary widely. She regularly works with non-verbal students and those living with Down syndrome, autism, epilepsy and ADHD. A page on his website lays out nine ways martial arts can help kids who learn and think differently. For example, martial arts focus on individual growth as opposed to team competition. They work towards specific goals, emphasize self-control and concentration, and help with coordination. Keri Wilmot, a Dallas-based pediatric occupational therapist, reviewed the list, which also includes acceptance. “Respect is a core value in martial arts,” the listing reads.

All TaeKwon Do KICKS classes begin the same way: students count to 10 in Korean. A student who does not communicate verbally participates with an iPad-generated voice.

“Master Thomas does a great job of making everyone feel included and comfortable where they are,” said Mark Deering. Her 15-year-old son, Michael Sayre, has septo-optic dysplasia, which causes symptoms like epilepsy and interferes with his gross and fine motor skills, including speech. The Bristol teenager has a high red belt, the rank just below black belt. He has been practicing tae kwon do at Thomas Vergennes School for almost five years and as a result his balance, strength and confidence have improved, his father said.

Michael’s mother, Liz Sayre, wrote in an email that students are meant to “raise the bar” in the kindness and encouragement they show others. “The community has been a source of strength in difficult days and of inspiration,” she wrote. “There are no limits to a student’s ability to grow.”

Thomas recognizes student achievement, big and small. At a December class, everyone cheered for the student who had just gotten his driver’s license and walked to class that day.

Tae kwon do was developed in the 1940s and named in 1955 by a South Korean general, Choi Hong Hi, widely credited as its founder. Based on an earlier form of self-defense, it is used to build up the mind and body. Students observe five principles: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit. Traditionally, Thomas said, there are 10 belt colors, including black, the highest level and the only color that includes 10 degrees of rank.

Thomas teaches students to take the principles of tae kwon do with them when they leave the classroom. Last fall, she assigned assignments to younger students, asking them to perform “10 random acts of kindness toward five different types of people in their community.” The kids “ate it all,” she said. Their acts included helping a grocery clerk with groceries and sitting next to someone at school who felt sad. The higher you go in the belt rankings, teaches Thomas, the more you should give to others.

“It’s not supposed to be about you as a person anymore,” Thomas said. “It’s supposed to be about what you give back. I’ve always tried to make sure I give back and my students learn to give back.”

Every spring, Thomas sponsors Kicking for a Cause. Kids and adults break a board for every $10 pledge they raise, and the money is donated to local charities.

In 2016, Middlebury Parks & Recreation presented Thomas with the Robert E. Collins Award, which recognizes a member of the community who exemplifies recreational education, volunteerism and community spirit.

Thomas, 51, first tried tae kwon do when he was 11 and went to class with his younger brother. His father transported them both from the dairy farm in Fairfield, where they lived, to Dion’s Taekwon-Do in St. Albans. One day, his father asked the instructors, Richard and Laurie Dion, if he could join the class, instead of just sitting there waiting. Thomas trained alongside his father and brother for several years and remembers “how magical it was”.

“It remains… some of my favorite childhood memories because growing up on a farm there wasn’t a lot of fun family time,” she said. “There was a lot of family time working, but not always a lot of fun.”

Around the age of 14, she stopped tae kwon do because her family could no longer afford it. “I’ve always missed that,” Thomas said. “Sometimes you do something, and you know it’s you.”

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A test day in Vergennes - CAT CUTILLO

  • Cat Cutillo
  • A test day in Vergennes

She struggled with feelings of self-esteem and depression when she was in high school, she said, and was suicidal while attending the University of Vermont, where she earned a science degree. animal.

“It was tae kwon do that kept me from pursuing all of this.” She joined a tae kwon do club at UVM, and the instructor also studied taekwon-do from Dion. “I like to tell people that tae kwon do literally saved my life,” Thomas said.

She earned her black belt in 1992, while still a student at UVM, and began teaching tae kwon do at a Colchester school owned by the Dions. She taught there until 1999 when she moved to Middlebury. She got married, had two children, and thought her days of practicing and teaching tae kwon do were over.

Then, in 2006, her 5-year-old daughter’s Friday track teacher had to cancel, creating a vacancy in the school’s track series. Thomas offered to replace him. After the series ended, a couple of parents asked if their children could continue taekwondo with her.

“My first class had three kids, one of them being my daughter,” Thomas said. In 2008, while working part-time as a dairy records specialist for Feed Commodities International, she officially launched her school in Middlebury, naming it TaeKwon Do KICKS. The acronym stands for “keep fit, inner strength, confidence, relatedness and self-defense”.

She and her husband separated in 2009, and Saturday became her ex’s day with the kids. Instead of “pouting around the house”, she found the silver lining and grew her business. She has added a second location in Vergennes, although she works full time at Feed Commodities International. In 2015, realizing she could no longer balance the two, Thomas quit her job to run tae kwon do schools full-time. She now operates four locations and teaches weekly at preschools in Whiting, Starksboro and Middlebury, teaching a total of 280 students each week.

Kathy and Bruce Atwood are still among them. The Shoreham couple, their daughter and two granddaughters, Avery Clark, 8, and Addison Atwood, 11, now hold first degree black belts. Addison got his last July, and the rest of the family followed, in January. Kathy and Bruce, 68 and 71 respectively, admit it has been physically difficult. Thomas supports them, they said, but she does not spare them.

“We were all disciplined,” Samantha said, and the rest of the Atwoods laughed.

“More than one time!” Bruce added.

Earning a black belt usually takes three or four years, Thomas said. She herself took 10 years. “My heart and soul were made for tae kwon do, but my body was not,” she joked. She now holds a sixth-degree black belt, which she earned in 2019, despite three hip replacements and fibromyalgia.

“It really becomes a journey of a lifetime, what tae kwon do means: the hand and foot way of life,” Thomas said. “The reason I teach is that I want to help people increase their self-confidence and self-esteem.”

About Tracy G. Larimore

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