The body can do amazing things when you just believe. That’s the attitude at Glenview’s North Shore DoJo, where Sensei Jeff Kohn coaches kids and adults of all ages and abilities.
Kohn’s career spans four decades, all in Chicago’s northern suburbs, with students currently ranging from 3 to 76 years old. He’s seen hundreds of miracles in that time—kids who have always been told they can’t, discover they can.
A key part of the dojo’s curriculum is the Karate Can-Do program, designed specifically for kids with special needs. “Our goal is for participants to be mainstreamed into the typical program, and a lot of kids have transitioned in,” Kohn says. With challenges ranging from learning disabilities to autism to amputated limbs, kids learn not just the physical aspects of karate, but also to be self-confident in all aspects of their lives.
“I ask them about what they can do,” he says. And the results? “It’s such a breakthrough in every other arena of their life. The transformation is just remarkable. Kids walk out of here with something more than just karate—they carry themselves like a confident human being.”
Current student athlete Michael McCarthy illustrates the change Kohn makes in kids’ lives. A double amputee, McCarthy went from being unable to walk to a member of the United States Disabled Karate Team, planning to compete in Paris in 2014.
“He has the heart of a lion,” says Kohn.
Ask Kohn about his biggest accomplishment, though, and he talks about a former student, diagnosed with spina bifida and unable to control his bowel and bladder. Through rigorous exercise and concentration, that child became able to control those functions—something healthy people take for granted, but key to a person’s dignity.
Given his diagnosis, “to have that function, in that world, is unheard of. So for him, and me, it was life changing.”
Kohn’s methods aren’t always warm and fuzzy—he readily admits that he has high behavioral expectations for his students. “This is a program where kids work, and it’s a tough-love kind of place,” he says of his dojo. But it’s that kind of structured environment that has earned karate the reputation as a good exercise for kids with cognitive issues like ADHD.
“There’s definitely a method of working with kids with different cognitive delays,” he says. “I treat them like athletes, just like they were anyone else. Great teachers have to make adaptations and that’s what comes from 30 years of teaching.”
He’s also paying it forward in the community with the Karate Can-Do Foundation, a nonprofit that offers scholarships, covers the cost of local exhibitions and has developed internships at the dojo where experienced students can earn community service hours and work-study credits.
Looking around his dojo, one would be quick to assume Kohn has reached the apex of his career—banners, medals and awards cover the wall. But Kohn still reaches for more.
“We’re trying to get karate in the Olympics and Paralym- pics in 2020,” he says. “I know some of my athletes will be on the podium, and my dream is to see them walk out there.”