Video provided courtesy of CNN.
Katarina Eckstein-Schoemann is the proud older sister of two autistic brothers. Growing up, Schoemann and her brothers tried out different after-school activities but often walked away discouraged and frustrated. Whether it was soccer, baseball or swimming, her brothers struggled to find an activity they enjoyed, and that also made them feel a sense of normal.
But then, the Eckstein-Schoemann family discovered Taekwondo. Schoemann reflects on why they fell in love with Taekwondo, “We loved it because we were all able to go out on the floor together and help my brothers, and they felt normal because all the other parents were out there helping their kids too.”
Because Schoemann grew up around children with disabilities she has a unique understanding of the assistance and support children like her brothers need. In May 2011, after her eighth grade year, she oversaw the formation of Breaking Barriers Martial Arts, Inc. which is a nonprofit that trains persons with disabilities in the martial arts.
In the last three years, the program has grown from one to 20 students with a growing waiting list. While the students have varying disabilities, including autism, Down Syndrome, Muscular Dystrophy, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), hearing impairments and vision impairments, Schoemann and her team at Breaking Barriers are able to help improve their students’ confidence, focus, discipline, respect, coordination, balance, social skills and overall happiness.
“You have to learn patience,” Schoemann explains.
Working with children with disabilities can be challenging and even frustrating at times. But Schoemann sees improvements in her students every day; one of the most rewarding moments for her was going to the 2013 AAU Taekwondo National Championships. Up until this point, there had been no opportunities for children with disabilities to participate. At the Championships, Schoemann helped children with disabilities from all across the nation compete.
She remembers, “There was a moment when we all walked out on the floor and everyone in the arena just stopped and started clapping. Everyone watched them compete. It was very emotional.”
Since then, Schoemann has run the first special needs Florida state qualifier for the AAU National Championships and the special needs division of the International Martial Arts Festival at Walt Disney World. Schoemann helps teach classes to 20 students, with plans to grow the class sizes soon. As the leader of Breaking Barriers, she also spearheads fundraising missions and has overseen a multi-faceted campaign.
Breaking Barriers is a growing organization that provides a necessary service to children with disabilities, and it wouldn’t exist without her. The success of her efforts is easily seen in the enormous progress her students have made. “By the time they tested for first degree black belt they were confident and ready,” Schoemann remembers from her brothers’ black belt ceremony. Her brothers proceeded to make a speech in front of 50 other testers and many more people thanking them with sheer confidence. Every day Schoemann is rewarded by seeing this kind of progress from her students.
Schoemann has been inspired by watching her students grow and overcome some of the challenges they were born with. She encourages others to seek inspiration and work to make positive changes.
If you know someone like Katarina Eckstein-Schoemann, nominate them today for the Daily Point of Light Award.