MIRROR IMAGE –– Master Steven Townsend started Kempo Karate Center after he earned his own black belt in 1987 and has been teaching local students the martial arts ever since. Photos by Lizz Schumer.
SPRINGVILLE — At Kempo Karate Center, karate is not just a self-defense tactic, it is an avenue to higher self-esteem, discipline, patience and character. Master Steven Townsend, teacher and proprietor of the Springville dojo, uses a blend of martial arts techniques and character-building incentives to teach more than just kicks and punches.
The studio is open six days each week, Monday – Saturday, with 60 students’ participating in classes for kids and adults. An afterschool program takes place every day after the final bell rings which Townsend said is the time when the students learn to be the best that they can be, both on and off the mat.
“[Karate is] a good program to learn to follow directions, self-direction, self-esteem and all those other skills children need to learn,” Townsend explained. “Karate is not a team sport; it’s more about the individual. It’s not about how they can punch and kick. It’s about character.”
RAISE THE BAR –– Taylor Towsend, 17, checks the wide stance of one of the karate students during class.
Kempo Karate Center started right after Townsend received his own black belt in 1987, when he decided to teach some friends out of his home.
“Within two weeks, I had 12 people,” he said. The popularity of his classes “snowballed” from there. At first, Townsend taught only students older than 13, but that changed when his own daughter turned 5 and she wanted to learn karate, too.
“We started doing it at the VFW Post one day a week. The first night we started, we had 30 kids,” he said. “In 1992, we outgrew the VFW and moved to Cattaraugus Street.” Three years ago, Kempo Karate Center moved to its current East Main Street location. It now serves more than 60 students in martial arts, mixed martial arts and jujitsu classes, with occasional offerings in tai chi and women’s self-defense.
All classes are mixed, with students from all levels learning from Townsend, his wife Sue and a team of volunteer black belts. This model allows students to learn not only from the master, but from each other, Steven Townsend explained.
“The students can look at each other and think, ‘That’s how I’m supposed to do it.’ We do a lot of positive reinforcement.”
In addition to the classes students take at the dojo, Townsend uses a program developed by the Jefferson Center for Education in Pasadena, Ca., called Success Through Accepting Responsibility. The STAR program, which currently has more than 2 million students nationwide, helps students learn such values as honesty, respect, responsibility, integrity, courage, tolerance, justice, self-confidence and politeness. At Kempo Karate, Townsend integrates that program with martial arts, in order to help the students develop those traits in all areas of their lives. Students are given a monthly activity and a STAR approval form that must be completed by the student’s family and school to certify that he or she has earned that month’s STAR designation.
“Self-defense is a great extra, but it’s really all about character-building,” Townsend said. “Our students have to be good everywhere. If they don’t do their paperwork [or] if they lose the form, no advancement. We try to push our students to be their very best.”
This technique has proven results in some of Kempo’s former students, two of which have gone on to careers at Google and NASA.
“It takes a long time [to advance through the ranks], but it’s amazing to see what our students become after they leave here. Some of them, we’ve had since they were 3 and 4 [years old] and they go on to do amazing stuff. That’s because they have confidence in themselves; because karate has taught them to keep going, that they can’t be stopped,” Townsend said.
At Kempo Karate, some students start as young as 3 or 4 years old, whereas others come in as teenagers or even parents, who get started in order to participate as a family, with their children.
“Some parents will come in and watch for a while and then they decide to do it, too,” Sue Townsend said. “Teenage girls will take classes before they go off to college. Sometimes, it’s not about fighting so much as it is about how you carry yourself. Our students know how to fight, but they don’t need to fight. You’ll never see karate kids tussling on the playground,” she added.
Although the students are given the opportunity to participate in two or three fighting and kata floor routine competitions each year, Steven Townsend said that the focus of his dojo is not on preparing for competitions, but on individual growth.
“We don’t stress what place our students take,” he said, of winning competitions. “It’s an option, but we don’t force it. The biggest truth is, it’s not all about karate. It’s about self-discipline.”
Townsend’s reach extends beyond the classroom not only through his lessons and the STAR program, but his involvement in his students’ lives, as well.
“Sometimes, I’ll get a call from the school that someone’s having trouble, so I’ll go up and I’ll sit with the teachers, the principal, the parents,” he said. “We have some single moms who bring their kids and this is the only place where their kids get a male authority figure, a role model. They support me, so I support them.
“I try to demonstrate respect,” Townsend continued. “You have to show [the students] how much you care, first. That’s the only time they’re going to listen and respond, if they know that.”
Although he encourages parents to bring their children to learn the positive effects of the sport, Townsend said that he likes prospective students to try out a class for free first, before committing to a class.
“I want them to see what it’s all about and then come back and let me know,” he said. “It’s not for everybody. They have to experience it. Some of the little ones just aren’t ready yet, and it can take patience.”
Sue Townsend said that some parents come sit on the mat with their children, to help them become more comfortable with the classes. She said that, although it is easier for students to pick up martial arts when they begin at a young age, students are ready at all different levels, depending on the individual child.
“We have one instructor who started when he was 3 and it was 6 weeks before he would get on the mat,” she said. “Mom sat on the edge with him for all that time, he was so shy. Four months later, he did a demonstration on Main Street. Sometimes, it just takes time.”
There are eight belt levels before the black belt, which is the highest in martial arts. Kempo Karate teaches from a manual that Townsend wrote himself, after he trained under two masters at the Kempo Institute in Angola. He said it usually takes between four and seven years for a student to progress through the levels.
Townsend said that he is continually working to make sure his students make progress both in class and at home.
“We try to teach the correct behavior, but I only have them 2 hours a week,” he said. “If it’s not enforced at home, there’s not much we can do. It has to be a team effort.”
That team effort is reflected by what Sue Townsend calls the attitude of a “karate family.
“We try to learn everyone’s first names and who goes with who. We want to make people feel at home.”
“I grew up here,” added Steven Townsend. “This is my family, and we want everyone to feel that, too.”
Kempo Karate Center is open after school every day until 6:15 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, 7:45 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and 5 p.m. on Fridays. The dojo is open from 10 a.m. – 11:45 p.m. on Saturdays and is closed on Sundays. The Townsends can be reached at 592-5425.