MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Carmen Puglio has been teaching elementary school students in the South Orange-Maplewood School District how to be street smart during the Beyond the Bell program on Thursdays and Fridays, giving kindergarten through fifth-grade students martial arts training so they know how to defend themselves and be aware of their surroundings. The Maplewood native owns Empty Hands Karate and Tae Kwon Do, which operates out of the South Mountain YMCA, and has been teaching martial arts for more than 30 years. During the course of the seven-week after-school program, Puglio wants to teach students self defense.
In an interview with the News-Record on Friday, Oct. 5, Puglio said that a normal taekwondo or karate program takes approximately six to 10 years to complete, ending with the award of a black belt. His program at the YMCA is condensed into just four years, with the option to continue studying for longer.
“This isn’t about belts,” Puglio said. “It’s about street awareness for the kids and for the parents. It’s reinforcing safety.”
The program also focuses on teaching children to be aware of their surroundings. Puglio encouraged his students always to stay with their parents when in a public setting and, should they believe that someone is following them as they walk down the street, to cross to the other side.
For one hour after school with his current group of approximately eight students, Puglio teaches taekwondo and karate methods, as well as sumo techniques. According to Puglio, sumo techniques allow someone to push a person away without kicking or throwing punches and risking injury.
“I teach karate, and I don’t even want my kids to do that,” Puglio said. “I want to get it in all the schools to have the kids and the parents learn about it. There’s nothing more important than having your child be street smart.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic