While Garfield Park is best known for its Sunken Gardens and conservatory, a topnotch karate program offered at the Burrello Family Center is beginning to make a name for itself.
Gillis’ Kandan Karate School has provided free lessons for the past two years and is averaging around 40 students year-round, although that number jumps to about 60 during the cold months when outdoor activities are at a minimum.
“We are attracting students of all ages, but I would like to see more,” said shihan Don Schenck, 58, a fifth-degree black belt who accepts no compensation for his services. Shihan is the title for an expert instructor. “I’m retired; I volunteer my time to keep our costs down. I want to bring more of the Southside community into our program. We have the space. We have three or four families, and we have single parents with their children. Everyone is very supportive.”
The only costs for a student are a uniform, pads and the yearly tournament. And some of those expenses are offset through grants from Friends of Garfield Park.
Schenck, a instructor since 1984, ran the school at Legore Boys & Girls Club on the Westside from 2002-12, with the exception of a year or so taken off to travel with his wife, Jean. When he approached then-Garfield Park Senior Manager Linda Burrello about relocating the school to her facility, she showed great interest. The details were worked out and the school was up and running in no time.
“Even though Linda is retired, she has not walked away from the program. She’s here when we need her, and she worked at our last tournament,” said Schenck, who is assisted in his teaching duties by Reno Spears, 15, and Lauren Fletcher, 17, both Ben Davis University High School students and first-degree black belts who started taking lessons from him when they were 10. There are eight colors of belts before becoming a black belt, of which there are eight degrees.
“They came with me from Legore and helped me start the school at Garfield Park,” Schenck said. Shihan sho Dawn Gillis and shihan Bill Stickley, who work at Gillis’ schools in South Bend and Nappanee, respectively, venture down occasionally to offer their assistance.
Schenck’s wife handles the administrative aspects of running the school. “If I had to do what she did, I wouldn’t have any time to teach,” he said.
The class meets from 6-8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays in the multipurpose room. When the basketball court isn’t occupied, the class will be divided into two groups according to skill level.
In addition, the couple take their students to the shores of Lake Michigan for a weekend in July so they can train in the sand, which provides physical and psychological benefits.
Schenck combines three aspects of the martial arts into his class: kobudo (weapons: a wooden staff, a billy club and a three-pronged knife), goshin jitsu (self-defense) and karate (punches, blocks and kicks).Injuries are rare because of the extensive padding and headgear worn, and students are not allowed to spar until they know what they are doing.
The students are up for ranking every three or four months if they have good attendance and a proper attitude.
“I only require my students to work hard and give it their best effort,” said Schenck, adding that it’s his goal to develop his young students into outstanding community members. Besides the physical fitness aspect of the program, he sees improvements in his students’ self-confidence and personal discipline. “It’s all about improving our minds, bodies and spirits.”
Surprisingly, women frequently outnumber men in the classes.
“Girls like karate because of the self-defense it offers,” he said. Also, girls have found out that they can be just as good at karate as guys if they work hard. Girls also like karate because of the strength training that is incorporated into my class. After a girl has thrown a hundred punches with a 1- to 5-pound weight in her hand, she has had a workout.”
In March the school hosts an oshogatsu (a new year’s opening), which allows the students to show off what they have learned to their parents through demonstrations, sparring and the customary practice of tameshiwara (board breaking).
Gillis’ Kandan Karate School, the oldest such institution in Indiana, was opened in South Bend in 1962. Its first class for women was started in 1964, and Kancho Gillis earned a first-degree black belt in 1966.
Stickley began his training at the Honbu in South Bend in 1971, and Schenck started training at Krannert Community Center in Indianapolis in 1973. Dawn Gillis began training in 1974 in South Bend.
Karate has become a way of life for Schenck, and he doesn’t see that changing.
“It’s all about training for a lifetime,” he emphasized. “Sensei Jim Hitchcock is 80, and he is still training and teaching. It’s my goal to be teaching past 80.”