DARTMOUTH — Matthew Axelrad and Jared Corbett were among a group of special-needs students that Mike Cappello, Dartmouth Public Schools' Adapted Physical Education instructor, brought over to the old sports dome in 1999.
They were there to hit some golf balls at the indoor driving range, but walked into Dan D'Onfro's martial-arts dojo by mistake. When Cappello followed, he realized his students had taken the wrong door.
"I had just opened the school, and I think I was vacuuming the carpets and they came into the sports dome because that's where my school was, and Jared walks through the door. And then he's like, 'Whoa!' And then there comes another one and another one, and it was like 10, 12 kids walked in,” recalls D’Onfro. “And Cappello came in and he's like, 'Oh I'm sorry, I'm sorry ... and I'm like, 'No, this is cool.' So we lined up and we ran a class, and they're like, 'It was great, can we come back next week?' They came back five weeks in a row. It was the start of something special."
One wrong turn was the beginning of a right turn into an enduring love affair between D'Onfro's students and karate. Little did either realize at the time that this would turn into an annual five-week program that highlights every January for Cappello's students and World Class Kenpo Karate on Faunce Corner Road.
"It ended up being a hit,” said D’Onfro. “We did five weeks in a row, and the following year (Cappello) contacted me. It was answering machine back then, now he just texts me: 'We're going to be around if you've got some time for us.' Now it's probably the five weeks of the year I look forward to most."
In the process, D'Onfro discovered his own patience and assertiveness with special-needs students, learning about himself despite no previous experience.
"Honestly, they're the easiest group to please,” says D’Onfro. “All I've got to do is stand up there and yell and they're all smiles. And when it comes to effort, you don't have to ask them to try hard. They put it all out there, 150 percent. It's full throttle."
D'Onfro, 46, was a UMass Dartmouth student from western Connecticut teaching karate part-time when the opportunity to stick around and build a business in the area presented itself.
"I'm so glad I was at the school that day because it's probably been the most enriching thing for me," he said. "Jared has won world titles, Matt's won national championships. These guys, they're like, all in — head first."
Mike Snow, a contemporary of Corbett’s and Axelrad’s, has cerebral palsy and his challenges were compounded by a stroke. During his time practicing karate, his speech improved, according to instructor Donna Bosworth.
"That guy worked so hard to get his black belt, it was like the proudest day of all of our lives," she said.
"I had to modify some stuff for him," said D'Onfro. “He's got some balance issues. ... It had to be modified a little bit, but he's got more heart than anybody.”
Heart is a two-way street, and without it there would have been no meeting of the minds.
“Dan makes me feel just as special as everyone in that class,” said Cheryl Pires, a student and instructor at D’Onfro’s school for the last four years. “Karate is for everyone. I don’t care how old you are, regardless of your disabilities, whether your disability is mental or physical.”
Pires has her own challenges, having been born with a kidney defect that, beginning a couple of years ago at age 51, made dialysis a regular part of her life. Awaiting a transplant, she keeps three dialysis appointments a week. This is her third time going through a martial-arts system. She's known D’Onfro for 20 years.
“No matter who shows up for class … it doesn’t matter, (D’Onfro) can look at that class and make it work,” she said. “Obviously, it’s a little bit different, but it’s rewarding because you see them make strides. He’s like magic, the way he works with these kids. Twenty kids on the mat; it’s insane but it’s beautiful. It’s like a symphony.”
When Pires accompanied a group to perform an exhibition at Dartmouth High School, one of the special needs students perked up.
“’You’re my karate lady!’ he exclaimed.
"It’s very, very rewarding,” Pires said. “I know how it feels to want to be part of something ... and give you a voice that you wouldn’t normally have. This is an individual sport that you can excel at — at your speed, regardless of your limitations — tailored to you.”
Krane Ratings has Corbett and Axelrad ranked 1-2 in its Physically Challenged division in the state of Massachusetts. Both bowl in Special Olympics. Axelrad has a 200 high score and rolled a 174 last week.
Axelrad, 35, is blind in his left eye from birth, but his greater challenge was weighing only one pound.
“He’s a miracle baby,” said Debbie Falk, his mother.
Axelrad was Special Olympics Athlete of the Year in 2003 and graduated Dartmouth High that year with the first class in the current building. Axelrad is confident, but never thought he'd become a third-degree black belt.
"No," he said.
One of the reasons he has excelled at karate is his ability to remember anything he hears. It’s one aspect of karate that he does not have to work at.
"It's all in my head. I just have a good memory," he said. "I also bowl with Special Olympics, but my main thing is martial arts. I'm in a class every single day getting better."
D'Onfro's gruff voice doesn't intimidate Axelrad.
"He's not mean,” says Axelrad, “he's just a great instructor."
With a girlfriend (Kim, with whom he's just celebrated a two-year anniversary), a job (at Market Basket in New Bedford since it opened in 2010) and his third-degree black belt, Axelrad looks forward to more competitions like the ones he’s excelled at in New York City, Providence, at Mohegan Sun Casino and in Marlboro.
Corbett, 38, is a graduate of the Dartmouth High School class of 1999 and has also become a third-degree black belt.
"I started at the high school," said Corbett, who has Down Syndrome. "I've been to the tournament a couple years."
That wrong turn in 1999 completely changed his life.
"Next thing you know he's going home at night and says he wants to take karate," said his father, Bill Corbett.
"Yes, I did," countered Jared.
"After the first lesson he wants a uniform," said Bill.
A year later, Jared began competing in tournaments. Now he competes in seven to 10 events a year. During the 2001-02 school year, he was supported with fundraisers to travel the globe competing in tournaments at far-away places such as Guatemala, Bermuda and Quebec. A fundraiser helped him go to the World Championships in 2001.
"He enjoys it. It's really helped his focus and coordination,” said Bill Corbett. “Every time they add a new element to the routine, I say to myself, I wouldn't have dreamed he'd be a third-degree black belt."
A few years back, D'Onfro received a grant from the state Department of Developmental Services to help finance the lessons for the special students. Karate remains a place where Jared Corbett learns.
"Yes, I do," said Jared, who has been working at Lees Market in Westport for the last 15 years.
Bosworth, 58, is a fourth-degree black belt who has worked with D’Onfro nearly 15 years.
“It’s grown. The amount of kids that have been involved has changed, and it gets better and better. One of my favorite things is seeing the kids grow,” she said. “There was this little boy who was scared to death, he didn’t want to hit the pads. I spent time with him in the corner of the room. ... Here he is as a teenager, ‘Yah, loving it!’ Those little things, it’s so much fun.”
The enthusiasm communicated by D’Onfro is infectious to the other instructors and to the students.
“It teaches them that they have the power and they have to control it. They know that they can’t hit me as hard as they hit Dan,” said Bosworth, a regular Wednesday night instructor for the past 10 years. "The thing about Kenpo is it’s for kids. Hand-eye, works both sides of the brain, and it’s systematic so it makes sense. For someone who needs structure, it’s structured. Two of my own children went through Kenpo and they are dyslexic, and they are very good martial artists because of that.”
Bosworth says she has her biological family and her karate family. Sometimes, only the karate family will do because it becomes about leaving the stress behind and enjoying something different.
“What I love is the kids look forward to it every year,” she said.
Five years ago, Laura Eckert’s son, Sam, was taking lessons.
“He outranked me,” she says. “They had a women’s self-defense class and that’s what got me on the mat. I tried one lesson and I was hooked. I’ve been at it three years now.”
Eckert is a second-degree brown belt and admittedly “still a learner.”
“To me, it’s the movement, it’s being physical. There’s a mental part of it. The concepts of motion that I get out of it. I am enjoying it,” she said.
The instructors are paying forward what they continue to receive from their karate experience.
“Kids are so shy and don’t even know if they want to be on the mat, then they’re going crazy on Dan,” said Pires. “Working with the students and sharing the gift, that’s part of martial arts. But he’s still there every Wednesday night. He has that young heart.”