OLD TOWN — An Old Town parent is trying to bridge a divide between two starkly different sections of the neighborhood through taekwondo.
The afterschool taekwondo program was started at Manierre Elementary last year thanks to donations from neighborhood groups, but this year Sharon Wheeler is counting on a crowd-funding campaign to continue the classes.
Wheeler has lived near Manierre for 18 years, and after seeing the positive impact martial arts had had on her own children’s lives she decided to give that opportunity to Manierre’s kids.
“The area is quite split between socio-economic situations. People on the lower end and people on the upper end and they are not interacting at all,” said Blair Sarkiss of the H.M.D. Academy of Tae Kwon Do. “Sharon is one of those people that is actually bridging the gap."
Manierre students live in an area bordered by invisible gang lines where violence and drug deals are a fact of life.
The school was slated for closure in the spring, but the community, parents, school staff and the alderman lead a fight that saved it.
The taekwondo program came out of the vision of Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), who is trying to unite the racially and socio-economically divided community, Wheeler said.
"Having three boys and seeing what taekwondo did for my boys, I just wanted to share that with my community," Wheeler said. "I wanted to support the alderman's vision."
The leaders of the taekwondo program stress that it's not a sport, it's about discipline and learning self confidence.
Last year, Wheeler, who is also an instructor at H.M.D. Academy of Tae Kwon Do, taught sessions twice a week at Manierre and gave 100 kids a chance to try to martial arts.
About 20 of those students earned their yellow belts, and at the end of their 10-week class they performed in front of their peers, principal, teachers and staff who stuck around after school to watch.
"The custodian at the school was even watching," Sarkiss said.
Part of the final performance required the students to write an essay about their motivation to study taekwondo.
The instructors usually don't read them out loud, but made an exception in this case.
"They were just so heartfelt, I had to share them with everyone," Sarkiss said.
The hope is that the lessons from taekwondo apply to all aspects of the student's lives.
Wheeler got the idea for the program from Lakeview’s Nettelhorst School, where two of her children still attend and her oldest attended.
H.M.D's Academy of Tae Kwon Do started an after-school program at Nettelhorst about 10 years ago.
Nettelhorst was not always one of the North Side's top schools, but community groups and businesses rallied around the school, leading it to where it is today.
The taekwondo program was the first to get involved with the Nettelhorst, and Sarkiss hopes Manierre's community follows a similar trend to get on board.
"The whole school was a community project," Sarkiss said.
Wheeler is hoping to raise $24,000 to be able to offer two 10-week sessions for 20 students twice a week through the indiegogo crowd-funding campaign.
The money would help cover insurance costs, while the H.M.D. Academy of Tae Kwon Do plans to donate uniforms for the students.
While the goal is to get Manierre's program up and running this year, Wheeler has hopes of eventually expanding the class to Near North's Jenner Elementary.
"We are martial artists so it’s just innate for us, this is what we know and want to share," Wheeler said.