Where the kids get their kicks

Alicia Robinson

Unlike some girls her age who want to be ballerinas or get ponies,

Serena Miller prefers snakes and karate.

Serena, who is 11, is learning karate now, even though she was

born with a retinal problem that left her blind.

Her classes are at Children's Hospital of Orange County, and her

teacher is Wayne Centra, a Newport Beach occupational therapist who

uses martial arts to help children kick the lethargy caused by

chemotherapy or fight for the muscle control that's slipping due to

an illness or disability.

Some of Centra's other students are children like 5-year-old Sarah

Grant, an exuberant blond cherub with glasses who made her parents

dye her karate belt pink.

During karate class, Sarah doesn't seem like she's been in and out

of hospitals since she was about a year old because of leukemia.

"He's done incredible with her. She's come so far in the last

year," said Sarah's mother, Wendy Grant, of Huntington Beach.

"A year ago she couldn't even skip."

Getting their fight back

Now Sarah can punch and kick, and so can a number of other

children who meet on padded floor mats every Wednesday in a therapy

room at the hospital.

Centra manages to hold their attention and keep the younger

children from wriggling away, even getting them to do a respectful

bow at the end of the class.

He'll start them with some stretches, helping them as needed, and

move into basic punching moves.

By the end of the class the students get to fall to the mats and

do kicks at an exercise ball, signifying their force with appropriate


Many of the students have had chemotherapy or debilitating health


Practicing karate moves helps them keep off excess weight from

their treatments or get control of their wayward muscles.

"[Centra's] work has really helped patients regain their strength

and get normalcy to their life," said pediatric oncologist Dr. Violet


"I've heard a lot of great feedback from the parents. They really

appreciate his work with their kids."

Change of pace

At one time, hospital karate instructor was not a likely scenario

for Centra.

He's now 34, when he was younger he was captain of the surf team

at Corona del Mar High School and wanted to go professional.

But before that, when he was 11, his mom drove him to a karate

school one day and dropped him off.

"I went in, spent two or three hours, and by the time I left I

loved it," Centra said.

"I guess what my mom was trying to teach me is there's other

things out there than surfing."

The lesson stuck. Centra started teaching karate classes at the

hospital three and a half years ago.

He'd been doing occupational therapy for children with special

needs and he wanted to offer something they could do as a group,

because much of their therapy is one-on-one.

That's an attraction to 8-year-old Daniel Liegman, said his

mother, Karine Liegman of Orange.

Daniel, who has cerebral palsy, has tried horseback riding, soccer

and other activities, but he likes the karate class because he enjoys

seeing the other students, she said.

"I think just having an environment where every child is accepted

is kind if the way that they are, and I think that's very important

for our emotional well-being as parents," Karine Liegman said.

The physical benefits of the class have been measurable for some


A year ago, Sarah Grant was behind her age group in her school's

adaptive physical education tests, but now she tests normal for her

age, said her father, Howard Grant.

Centra's easy-going teaching style may have something to do with

his students' motivation.

"We thought he was wonderful," said Colleen Whitfield of Costa

Mesa, whose daughter Hannah takes Centra's class.

"He's so humorous with the kids. You can tell he just has a heart

for doing this."

A special class

The karate classes are important to Centra because many of the

families that bring their children to him have tried community

programs, but felt like they were pushed aside, he said.

"This gives them a chance to be just like every other kid and form

relationships just like every other kid," Centra said.

And while the physical and social benefits of the classes please

the parents, they gratify the students just as much.

"I think it's really cool because I get to learn really cool

karate moves," Serena said with a wry smile.

"Besides the fact that I can sometimes hurt my instructor, I like

to do a lot of kicks and punches and stuff."

Hannah Whitfield said she's wanted to do karate for a while, and

she thinks Centra is a good teacher.

With five other children, her mother has had her hands full and is

happy to get Hannah doing something she likes.

"With six kids, you want to help them find what they enjoy,"

Colleen Whitfield said.

"I think this is going to be Hannah's thing."

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