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Doug Clark: Martial arts instructor leads with his heart

This Santa don’t need no stinking reindeer.

Ditto the sleigh and woolly white beard.

This Santa is 64 years old, drives a ’92 Camry and holds a sixth-degree black belt in the Korean martial art tae kwon do.

But just like that famous jelly-bellied guy in the furry red suit, Starley Mason has a super-sized heart.

I know. Mason let me ride shotgun with him Thursday night on his annual trek to bring Christmas aid and comfort to a needy Spokane family.

“We’ve been doing this for 32 years,” Mason explained. “It’s about our group doing something, and we’re all out with every family we get.”

Mason doesn’t charge money for the Northeast Youth Center Tae Kwon Do Club he runs. He and volunteer leaders teach three after-hours classes a week at Spokane’s Cooper Elementary School.

Two cans of food per student per month. That’s the price of admission. Classes average about 60 students.

The goods, along with other donated items and money raised through car washes and other fundraisers, are stockpiled until the season of tinsel rolls around.

Then, on a prearranged night, Mason and students head out to do the work of angels.

“We want to leave them in tears and feeling that people love them,” he said of the recipients.

It was mission accomplished on this night.

The Cooper Elementary parking lot was our staging ground. After 30 minutes, Mason announced that it was time to go.

Off we went in his black Camry with a caravan of about 20 trucks, cars and vans trailing behind us.

An apartment complex east of Hillyard was the destination.

It is home to Rachelle Hemmerling, a single mom, and her two incredibly cute and polite kids: Blayke, 9, and Breyona, 5.

This was no surprise attack.

Rachelle had been told that some do-gooder might be coming by to drop a little something off for the holidays.

What a setup.

Mason said the families helped are selected by school counselors. Last year, for example, it was a mom and some kids who had found themselves in a bad way after dad died in a commercial fishing accident.

Mason recalled another outing when his group arrived just as the family was sitting down to dinner.

“Hard-boiled eggs,” said Mason. “That’s all they had to eat.”

Mason knows about the debilitating effects of poverty.

He said he grew up poor with parents “who didn’t want me.” Getting shipped off to live with grandparents, however, turned out to be a turning point. He said he found love and a calling when he began taking tae kwon do instruction.

He’s been at it ever since.

Watching what transpired after we arrived at Hemmerling’s apartment was one of the most touching moments I’ve ever witnessed.

“Oh, my gosh. I had no idea,” she said through tears as a parade of martial artists young and old walked in toting sacks of food, canned goods, laundry detergent, breakfast cereal, presents …

“This is all dropped off with lots of love,” said Mason.

Count me as a believer.

Meanwhile, on the couch, Blayke and Breyona sat quietly, soaking it all in with wide grins and looks of amazement.

“They help me out a lot,” Hemmerling told me. “They’re my best friends.”

The giving took about 15 minutes to complete. Then Mason and friends returned to their vehicles and faded into the foggy chilled night.

“This does so much good for the community of Hillyard up here,” said Gary Dowler, a volunteer instructor, who estimates 25,000 students have come through the program over the years. That figure includes Dowler’s wife, Linda, and their three kids, Cameron, Alicia and Megan.

It’s a bit odd to think of a tae kwon do class representing what Christmas is supposed to be all about.

“We like spreading happiness around,” he said. “We’re instruments of peace, not destruction.”

Doug Clark is a columnist with The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at

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