On the surface it looks like a normal taekwondo class. Two dozen students are warming up on the concrete floor at Northeast Youth Center and more are coming through the doors – with a ceremonial bow – all the time.
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday the gym fills up with martial arts students, the youngest are 8 and the oldest could be their grandparents.
The class instructor is Sabumnim Starley Mason. Sabumnim is an honorary title combining “master” and “sir” but Mason is not intimidating. He smiles easily and he’d much rather have the focus be on his students than on himself.
“We started this program in January of 1978 at Cooper Elementary School,” said Mason. “I’ve probably seen 20,000 students come and go through here.”
But what’s really unusual about Mason’s taekwondo program is that any student is welcome for the price of two cans of food – a month. The food goes to help out a family that’s fallen on hard times through no fault of its own.
“We adopt a family at Cooper Elementary, and all the food goes to them,” said Mason, adding that some years the Northeast Youth Center Taekwondo Club collects so much food that there is enough for the family and one or two other programs.
Alicia Lassman is one of Mason’s senior instructors. She heard of Mason’s program from a colleague and 11 years ago she brought her daughter to the class.
“It was either this or swimming lessons – halfway through the warm up she was begging for swimming lessons,” said Lassman, laughing. “I’ve been part of the class ever since. One of my pleasures is to see the students learn.”
Taekwondo is a martial arts form that focuses on kicking, but it also teaches strict discipline, coordination and balance.
“We drill focus with the students,” said Lassman who, like all the other instructors, is a volunteer.
Students come from all over Spokane.
Kylie Cutie is 10 and a fifth-grader at Orchard Center Elementary School in Spokane Valley.
“I watched it and it sounded cool,” said Cutie, who has a brown belt after two years of training. “I think it helps me to be focused in school. I want to continue to do this as long as I can.”
Mason, who made a career of being a professional taekwondo instructor, said he started the program when he noticed all the kids hanging around on the sidelines of his classes because they couldn’t afford to sign up.
“I decided that if I was ever in a position where I could teach some students for free, I would do it,” said Mason.
On a recent evening, Mason walked from group to group as students warm up and get ready for practice.
Bao Tran is 14 and a freshman at Rogers High School.
“My mom brought me here when I was a little chubby kid,” he said with a laugh. “And I haven’t been able to stop. Teaching is my favorite part.”
There’s also a social aspect to Mason’s class.
“I didn’t have many friends when I first got here,” said Tran. “But I met so many great people – it’s like they are a big family.” He adds that taekwondo is tough to learn, but it’s not impossible.
Mason said he has been devoted to taekwondo for 55 years.
“You won’t find instant gratification here; you have to keep at it,” Mason said, watching his students. “There is not a person in here who would start a fight. That’s not what it’s all about.”
Children must be 8 to join Mason’s program, and he encourages their families to come, too.
“We don’t want to be used as a babysitting service,” he said, smiling. “This is something you can do as a family.”
Draven Roley,7, is a second-grader at Bemiss Elementary School. He comes to classes with his mom.
“It is good exercise,” Roley said in a serious tone. “And practice. I practice so I don’t get into a fight.”