After a respectful bow to Master Robert Stevenson, the three boys start
their 50 laps around the classroom. An extremely focused 11-year-old
named Joel Roman counts the laps out loud while he runs.
The boys are starting their tae kwon do class at the Ann and George Macomber Learning Center, an education center for the Roxbury and Dorchester communities located on Winthrop Street and sponsored by Nuestra Comunidad Development Corporation.
The center has offered a variety of courses to people of all ages since June, when it launched computer training and tae kwon do classes.
“We hope that our tenants do better physically, mentally and economically,” says Evelyn Friedman, executive director of Nuestra Comunidad, who was recently selected by Mayor Thomas M. Menino as the new chief of housing and director of the City of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development.
Nuestra Comunidad expanded its affordable housing, entrepreneurship and housing stability activities after requests from its tenants. A donation of $200,000 from the Macomber Family Charitable Gift Fund then made it possible for the organization to open the Macomber Learning Center.
Now the center is offering courses free of charge to anyone in the community, from computer training, tax preparation and homebuyer classes to sewing, cooking and the tae kwon do class where Joel runs his laps. According to Friedman, it will also be adding other courses that the staff feels could enhance the lives of community members.
“We will continue to add on more crafts,” assures Friedman, who wants to add English as a second language and nutrition classes, as well as open another similar center nearby until next summer.
The Macomber Learning Center now tutors about 60 people, but Friedman says it has enough room to accommodate 150 to 200 students. To attract more people, she says, Nuestra Comunidad is planning to create more classes, mainly during the evenings and on Saturdays.
On Saturdays, Master Stevenson starts his tae kwon do class with running and stretching activities. Then he orders the children to deliver the first kicks and punches. While everyone trains, he goes from one student to another, blocking their attacks and correcting their movements.
“[The training is] holistic. It’s mind, body and spirit,” says Master Stevenson. “It challenges them to give their personal best. And that’s what I like. Not challenging each other, but challenging themselves.”
Master Stevenson, 45, started practicing the martial arts when he was 14. He says tae kwon do develops leadership in children, helping them deal better with street violence by targeting and improving self-defense skills. The goal, he says, is to empower his students, not just teach them how to fight.
“It gives them energy [and] confidence,” he says. “And they know they can protect themselves.”
Master Stevenson thinks his students at the center are also learning about respect and determination. Iris Abreu, Joel’s mother, agrees. As the classes progress, she says she sees Joel becoming better at controlling his anger.
“And it teaches me a lot about how to defend myself. I am getting stronger,” adds Joel, a sixth grader at Boston Preparatory Charter School.
Friedman sees the tae kwon do class as a model of what the Macomber center can provide, noting that some of the students have begun to do better in school, are more focused and are more disciplined.
She says she believes that like the children in tae kwon do class, the other students at the Macomber Learning Center “will have more opportunities to do other things” when exposed to new challenges in their courses.
As far as Joel is concerned, Friedman seems to be right. Since he started training in June, Joel has decided he wants to become a tae kwon do instructor just like Master Stevenson.
“I want to keep going until I am the highest rank,” he says.