No Barriers: How Karate Helps Empower Youth

No Barriers is a Fort Collins non-profit with the motto: What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way.

Those words should ignite the spirit of every martial artist, and Ripple Effect Martial Arts is teaming up with No Barriers for an upcoming board break.

Last week I had the chance to talk with Ashley Schwader, a karate student (and karate mom!) who’s also the Director of Youth Programs for No Barriers. Here’s what she had to say about the connection between martial arts and No Barriers’ mission to “unleash the potential of the human spirit.”

What’s your background working with young people?

During my career I’ve worked in supporting policy change, systems change and health education through work with schools and districts. With No Barriers Youth, the mission is focused on kids with what we call visible and invisible disabilities.

We give them tours, resources, experiences and inspiration to overcome the sometimes overwhelming challenges in their lives.

It’s inspiring to see the statistics on your website: “90% of participants report ‘This program changed my life.’ 93% commit to reaching their full potential at the conclusion of their program.” This aligns with the Black Belt journey, that you’re not here for a few weeks, a few months, but for years to earn your Black Belt.

That’s exactly right.

When did you first take an interest in martial arts?

I’ve always wanted to do martial arts. I started my son [Hunter] in Little Ripples [an introductory karate program for kids aged 3-6] when he was about 3 and a half.
He’d been dealing with anger, aggression, behavioral issues. I felt like karate would be a good opportunity to give him character development, structure, positive role models, and a safe place to really work out his aggression. Ripple Effect checked all those boxes.

How has it gone with Hunter? Is he liking the karate experience?

He loves it. A year later, he really wanted to join the “big kids” [belt level] classes, so now we’re advancing through that program. My husband joined as well, so now we’re all on our way to Black Belt. It’s become part of our family culture and dynamic.

How did the Ripple Effect/No Barriers partnership arise?

No Barriers works to reach youth, veterans, and caregivers, and in the process we help create leaders. In the ways it impacts kids and families, in the challenges it provides, Ripple Effect Martial Arts merges with that mission.

Of course as a non-profit we rely on fundraising and donations. I came to [Head Instructor] Mr. Robinson and talked about the No Barriers mission, and he thought a board break would be a great way to raise awareness and funds for our work.

Master Macy thought it would work perfectly as well, because students face the physical trial of breaking the board, but also the psychological barriers that make that so challenging.

How do people come to No Barriers? How do they find out about what you do?

Partnerships are key. We have a wide ambassador network. We have a Warriors team of military veterans that does outreach and partnership building. We also have an annual event called the Summit, which had about 800 participants this year.

Our co-founder, Erik Weihenmayer, who was the first blind person to summit Mount Everest, helps bring our programs so much exposure. Erik, along with our ambassador network, shares our mission and vision with people all over the country.

Do the kids participating in No Barriers expeditions understand the challenges involved? How do you prepare them to overcome fears?

We have a three-phase curriculum approach. Phase 1 is the introduction. What is the No Barriers philosophy? How does this translate to my life? We address those overarching questions before the actual experience begins.

Phase 2 is the experience stage. The expeditions. We have a pre-travel meeting, where questions are asked and answered. We coordinate the logistics of travel, supplies, practical concerns. Then you’re off, whether it’s a ropes course or an expedition up Everest. You engage in an experience that will transform your life.
Phase 3 is about translating that experience to others, through outreach. Giving back to the community, sharing what you’ve learned.

That really aligns with the martial arts approach to training, preparation and outreach, expanding your influence outside the karate school and into the community.

Yes. [My family and I] are high-blue belts now, looking forward to working on Hero and Leadership projects as we make our way toward Black Belt.

I read on your Stories page about a young woman who said that her favorite experience in going to Nepal was meeting a boy named Noah who’s blind. He described being able to see colors. It inspired her.

We believe that different ways of seeing and experiencing the world changes the way you interact with the world.

One of my favorite stories is of my son Hunter, who came to this past No Barriers Summit event. He met another boy named Hunter, who had lost a leg. It was so cool to see the two Hunters out at the pool, at the rock climbing wall.

They even did an adaptive boxing class, and Hunter, who’s in martial arts, was just blown away that this young man with one leg could hold his own in the ring.

That’s an amazing martial arts mindset.

So much of what we’re talking to Hunter about right now is just self-confidence, believing in yourself. I love that poster in the [Fort Collins] karate school that says Black Belts don’t use negative self talk, “I can’t, I won’t.”

It’s amazing to think that he hasn’t even started kindergarten yet, and he’ll walk in the door with all this confidence that he’s earned through these experiences in karate.

Where will the board break proceeds go?

After the costs of the T-shirts and boards, all the funds from the board break go to No Barriers. We have a lot of kids that can’t afford the expeditions. We work with a lot of high-needs populations, especially in the youth department, who don’t have the means to participate in No Barriers programs. This partnership and fundraising is crucial to supporting these kids.

Have you ever broken a board?

I have not.

Have you been to a board break?

Not yet [smiles].

I think you’re going to be amazed. The way the instructors get people to push through their perceived limitations. People can fail to break that board three, four, ten times. The tension builds, the fear builds. It seems impossible. And then it happens.

I can’t wait. Thank you for helping us raise money to sponsor the No Barriers experience.

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