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
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."