Wayne Centra '98, O.T. '00 : Wayne's Karate Kids

By LeeAnn Kriegh '94


Wayne Centra '98, O.T. '00, said you can always hear his students coming. Young people with cerebral palsy, autism, cancer, brain tumors, and other afflictions cast aside their problems as they bound down the hospital corridors, laughing and yelling on their way to Centra's karate class.

The joyful sounds symbolize the effect the class has on the children - as well as on the Children's Hospital of Orange County (Calif.), where Centra works as an in-patient occupational therapist.

"When you hear these kids running through the halls, it's like it's suddenly a great place, a fun place to be. Why does a hospital always have to be this horrible environment nobody wants to go to?" Centra said. "It's actually changed the whole dynamics of what we think a hospital for children should be."

Last July, Newsweek recognized Centra as a "hometown hero" for his Karate for All program, which reaches patients between the ages of four and 18. Centra's work has also been featured on "American Health Journal," California's largest television health care program, which serves more than 10 million viewers.

Karate - the Japanese martial art noted for developing discipline and fitness - may seem an unusual tool for reaching children with special needs, but Centra said it's a perfect fit. "Karate is an all-in-one activity," he said. "I like yoga - don't get me wrong. I like baseball. But karate is one activity where you get everything. You get the strength, you get the range of motion, you get the concentration, you get the self-respect, and you learn to respect others."

Centra is expanding his program to two more children's hospitals in Southern California, and he said he hopes someday the program will be available in every children's hospital in the nation.

After five years of teaching the class, he already has a long list of success stories. Before he started practicing karate, Centra said one boy with severe cerebral palsy wouldn't voluntarily move his arms or legs; his mother had to help him. "He didn't interact with anybody. He couldn't communicate. He wouldn't say words," Centra recalled. "He's been in the class since July, and now he comes in and goes, 'Matt! Wayne! Bailey!' He's so excited he starts calling out all the other kids' names."

Centra said he treats each karate class like a therapy session, with activities specifically designed to increase sensory processing skills. "We really work to address every kid's individual needs. When I do a class, it's filled with planned activities to address each kid's individual limitations, whether it's social skills, inability to move, inability to engage with others, global strengthening, or endurance."

Although he has taught karate for 20 years in a variety of settings, Centra found children with special needs posed unique challenges. "When I first started doing this, I put the kids in a group and they didn't even talk to anybody. They didn't talk to other kids. They didn't talk to me. And I'm saying what's going on here? What can I learn from this?
"What I learned is these kids are trained to be isolated. Not by their parents; it's not them at all. It's our environment. It's our culture. We like the kid who's the strongest and the most popular and the best looking ... but we don't know what to do with these kids, so we don't talk to them."

When Centra tells people about his program, he said he often gets an unfortunate reaction. "People say, 'Oh my gosh, you work with sick kids.' These kids aren't sick," he said. "They might have disabilities or they might be challenged, but they're not sick."

Centra said the key to the success of the program is overcoming the children's sense of isolation through social interaction and communication. "This program allows kids to be on the same level and interact with each other. When you see them opening up and talking to each other and communicating with each other, it's like night and day. These kids have a major difficulty. Whether they have a funny walk or they talk funny or they don't have hair, they are not accepted," he said. "But they are accepted in this class."

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