FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- (Editor's note: This article is the third in an eight-part series featuring the SKIES Unlimited program, which is designed to enrich military children's lives by expanding their knowledge, allowing them to explore and learn new skills.)

Fort Drum children are learning to channel their energy by focusing their minds and bodies. SKIES Unlimited offers two programs to teach youths 4 to 18 the fundamentals of martial arts.

McKenizie Tehonica, SKIES Unlimited instructor, said the classes focus on self-discipline, especially the ability to listen and follow instructions.

"Before every class, we tell them to turn on their 'listening ears,'" Tehonica said.

"They're learning to punch and kick, and we don't want them to hurt themselves or one another," she continued, adding that children also are expected to address the instructors as "sir" or "ma'am."

During their training, children also improve their coordination, Tehonica explained. Some of the drills they use, such as dodging, require hand-eye coordination and focus.

One of Tehonica's students, Evan McDonald, 4, is currently enrolled in the Tiny Tots martial arts class, and he will soon move up to the next level. Once he moves up to the main class, Evan will don his very own uniform and begin earning belts.

His mother, Alicia McDonald, said she has noticed that Evan is more focused after starting the class in December. The class also has been a good way to keep him active and out of the cold weather.

"He's more focused and determined," McDonald said. "He's more determined to get the moves down. He practices with his brother at home."

Tehonica's father, Tom, who teaches the SKIES Unlimited taekwondo class, said martial arts centers on respect.

"We have them set goals and list what they want to achieve," he said. "We also check report cards and chore sheets that the parents take home. It can be anything like helping Mom and Dad clear the table or take out the trash."

The students are required to bring their chore sheet back at the end of the week.

"Anything we do in life requires hard work, not just taekwondo, but school and sports," Tom Tehonica said.

Krista Dennis, whose daughter Ava, 4, has been in the class since January, said she also sees positive changes. Ava's instructor encourages the children to listen to their parents, especially when one isn't home. Her husband, Maj. Kirby Dennis, has been deployed with 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, for almost a year.

"I have seen increased motivation in the home regarding chore completion," she said.

When children turn in chore charts, they are praised in front of the class, and in turn, they are allowed to participate in extracurricular activities within the dojo, or taekwondo school, Dennis explained.

"I have also seen improvement in gross motor skills, flexibility and balance," she added. "She is polishing up on her axe kick, which is her favorite and what she summons to ward off her older brother!"

"Personally, I think any type of sports involvement promotes more positive coping skills for what life throws at you, especially the little ones when Dad is deployed," she continued.

In Tom Tehonica's 33 years of teaching, he said he has seen a lot of military children come into his dojo.

"(Taekwondo) definitely helps during deployments," he said, adding that deployments are hard on children, especially in the beginning. "It's rough on (children) at first; you can see it in their eyes. Taekwondo helps them, because it keeps them focused."

"I tell some of the younger guys that 'you're the man of the house now' and that they have to help Mom around the house," he continued. "Parents say they really do help around the house. We do a lot of other things that teach them to stay focus. It's hard on everybody -- they just have to do their part."

Recently, Tom Tehonica brought 42 of his students -- from the SKIES Unlimited program and his dojo in Watertown -- to the Amateur Athletic Union Northeastern United States Championship in Albany.

The competition brought more than 400 athletes from eight states to vie for a qualifying spot in either the national championship or junior Olympics for children younger than 18. The local team brought home 27 gold, 17 silver and 22 bronze medals.

"(Students) see all the hard training pays off in the end. Not only are they learning martial arts, but also sportsmanship and dedication," he said. "From 5 years old and up, they showed that they were a force to be reckoned with."

"The parents were great. You could hear them from across the gym cheering as one of our students won in one of the six rings they had there and … see their proud faces on them as well, as their child was awarded their medal on the winners' platform," he continued.

For the next few months, Tom Tehonica will be busy training his young martial artists for the national-level competitions this summer, both of which will take place in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"I have trained many national champions over the last 25 years, and I see a lot of promise with these students," Tehonica said. "They all have that warrior spirit that the Soldiers from Fort Drum are known for, and they all have the hearts of a lion. I am so proud of all of them."

To enroll or for more information about the SKIES Unlimited program, call 772-0629.

Page last updated Thu February 16th, 2012 at 11:21