Zen Martial Arts Center

Sacramento Martial Arts and Karate

Inside the City Magazine: Black Belts Rebuild

Our efforts in Alabama were recently spotlighted in the Inside the City and Inside East Sacramento magazines. You can view the complete April issue over at Inside Publications or download the PDF. Thank you Terry for spotlighting the work of HERO, the UBBT, and our Sacramento dojo.

Black Belts Rebuild
Local martial arts students aim to help victims of Hurricane Katrina

Coloma Community Center is  about as far removed from Hale County, Ala., as it is possible to be. The center sits on tree-lined T Street in Sacramento’s Elmhurst neighborhood, while Hale County lies in the hurricane-ravaged Black Belt region of Alabama and is littered with abandoned houses, schools and businesses.

In early April, the two will be linked for three days as Mike Oliver and a handful of his students from Zen Martial Arts studio, which is housed in the Coloma center, join with more than 100 other martial arts instructors and students from across the country to help breathe new life into the skeletal remains of the town of Greensboro, the poorest of the poor in Hale County. You could call it Black Belts Rebuilding the Black Belt.

Through a national organization called The Ultimate Black Belt Test, and working with an Alabama-based nonprofit called HERO, Oliver and company will be doing construction work on a historic Rosenwald school, a once black-only institution that was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and creating a new house for Ms. Georgia, an elderly Greensboro resident for whom home has been a place with dirt floors, holes in the roof and no electricity or running water.

This will be Oliver’s second excursion to the Black Belt. Last spring, he went on his own to perform this labor of love, rising early each morning to train, then heading to the worksite to invest every ounce of his strength and energy into the project. “The area was just devastated,” Oliver recalls. “The high school was destroyed, businesses were vacant and packs of dogs were running through the town.” This year, as he reconnects with Greensboro residents and martial arts colleagues with whom he bonded a year ago, Oliver will be sharing the experience—of which sleep deprivation is the hallmark—with some of his current karate students.

The region where they will be working has a rich history. It was called the Black Belt because of its dark soil, which for more than two centuries supported a strong agricultural economy made possible by the slave trade. Today, one can see the relics of old estates, overgrown with kudzu, as well as former slave quarters. During the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. spent time in this area, drawing the nation’s attention  to the plight of the descendants of those slaves.

If you think the Hale County project is a stretch for Oliver and his students, think again. From the moment they set foot in his studio, every student—whether 4 years old or 94 years old—is obligated to perform community service. This isn’t a token gesture. At every belt level, the students must do a leadership community project, and they are responsible for doing a thousand acts of kindness. Projects have ranged from collecting school supplies for the needy to folding and selling origami cranes to raise money for Shriners Hospital. “I tell the students that  they should find something they’re passionate about,” says Oliver. “I’ve never turned anybody’s leadership project down.” 

“The martial arts training is physically very demanding,” he acknowledges. “These students train harder than anyone else. But this is about much more than karate. We want to redefine what it means to be a black belt.” The mission of Zen Martial Arts, which is run through the city parks and rec department, as well as of the UBBT program worldwide, is to teach a brand of self-defense that transcends the physical. Says Oliver, “I don’t want students  who only want to punch and kick. It’s important to balance the physical side of martial arts with kindness and compassion.”

What the martial arts training gives to the workers on the ground in Greensboro is not just exceptional physical conditioning, which will enable them to endure the rigors of the work, but also great mental conditioning. “Everyone who has this background is willing to do any kind  of work,” says Oliver. “They don’t complain. They never say no. They just do whatever they’re asked to do.” He recalls the   emotional impact last year’s trip had on him. “We slept on the floor of an old restaurant building, and we showered in a nearby high school that had been abandoned,” he says. “I walked through that high school building and I saw that there were still trophies in the case, banners on the walls, things written on the chalkboards in the classrooms.”

In preparation for this year’s trip, Oliver’s classes participated in “pennies for push-ups.”  For each penny they brought in, Oliver did a push-up. All the money went to the HERO organization to pay for building supplies; Oliver and fellow travelers paid their own way. “Some day, I would like to take the whole school,” says Oliver.

To learn more about Zen Martial Arts, go to zenmartial.com. For information about The Ultimate Black Belt Test and the Hale County project, go to herohousing.org/UBBT.

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