Dressed in a red uniform in a Lenexa martial arts studio, Helen Dugan puts an opponent 73 years her junior in a choke hold, then throws him to the mat. Moving like a woman half her age, she pounces on top of him, pinning his arms.
Let other octogenarians take it easy. Despite gray hair, wrinkles and 17 great-grandchildren, Dugan has no intention of going gentle into that good night. Now 80, she is a third-degree black belt in American karate who can still snap off a spinning back kick and break boards and bones with her feet.
“Want to know what my grandsons say about me?” she says as a smile sneaks across her face. “Well, you know how kids in school say, ‘My dad can beat up your dad’? They say, ‘My grandma can beat up your dad!’”
Laugh if you will. But this karate grandma is no joke.
“I love droppin’ ’em,” she says about opponents.
She also loves helping them.
For 25 years Dugan has used her skills to train students often turned away by others. Her nonprofit martial arts school, Champs Achievers, specializes in teaching people with special needs. A third of her 60 students are on the autism spectrum. Others have cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, attention deficit disorder and developmental delays. Some have hearing and vision impairments.
Last fall Dugan moved her school (called a dojo in karate terms) from the now-closed Metcalf South Shopping Center west to a location on Pflumm Road.
“Helen is an amazing woman,” says Angela Degnan of Leawood, whose 3-year-old son, Aiden, joined in October. “She has dedicated her life to children with special needs. My son has special needs, and it’s been a wonderful experience for him.”
By all accounts, Dugan holds her own in tournaments against far younger opponents and is more than capable of defending herself.
“The headlines would not be pretty when they read, ‘Mugger beat up by 80-year-old woman,’” says Mark Schenkelberg, a fellow Prairie Village resident who takes lessons from Dugan with his son, Jacob.
Not all of Dugan’s students have developmental delays. Jacob, a 17-year-old junior at Shawnee Mission East High School, started training with her in 2006 because of an orthopedic problem in his hip. Nine years later that problem is gone.
“Helen’s a great teacher and a great person,” Jacob says. “I’ve learned so much through the years. If I were to go to another dojo, I probably would not have as inspiring a teacher as Helen Dugan.”
Back on the mat, Dugan is both opponent and instructor to 7-year-old Brayden Bond of Olathe. The boy is not pinned for long, as he raises his hip and executes a combination of moves to throw his teacher off.
Dugan bounces up and gives Brayden a high-five for a job well done. Brayden smiles as if it were his birthday.
“I’m 35, and I can’t do a third of what she does,” says Brayden’s mother, Serena Faith. “My goal in life is to be Helen when I get to be her age.”
Dugan didn’t start learning karate until after she and her family moved to the area in 1979. When her two sons took lessons from her son-in-law, Jim Hartley, at a Shawnee martial arts school, Dugan did, too. Her kids lasted four years.
“Then they discovered girls and got married,” she says. “But I was hooked.”
Dugan took karate classes for 14 years, earning her black belt at the age of 61. She was also working as a nurse in the Center School District.
Karate strengthened her body and mind and helped her restore the self-esteem she had lost in childhood. Dugan founded her own karate school in hopes of helping others do the same.
You see, Dugan’s students aren’t the only ones with a disability.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Dugan failed many of her grade school classes. She has a few traits on the autism spectrum, but not enough to be officially diagnosed. Although she was creative, she couldn’t do math, had short-term memory problems and struggled to learn in the conventional way.
“It takes me really a long time to learn something,” she says. “And if I don’t use it, I lose it.”
She thought she knew the reason for her problems.
“I just thought I was stupid,” she says. “I got passed on probation all the way through grammar school. It wasn’t until high school that I realized I had a brain.”
She adopted unorthodox study techniques that jibed with the way her brain liked to learn.
“I just started to use my head and worked around things I didn’t know.”
It worked well enough to get her into a Philadelphia nursing school. After graduation she got a job at a hospital and then married her husband, Barney. (At 82, he still travels the country as a sales supervisor, peddling steel cables and construction equipment. They’ve been married for 57 years and have five grown children.)
Dugan still struggles with “face blindness” — or prosopagnosia — a condition that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to recognize faces, even of close friends and family.
“I can meet you tomorrow and not know who you are. I didn’t know it had a name until I read Temple Grandin’s book,” she says, referring to the famed professor and autistic activist.
Others with the condition include anthropologist Jane Goodall and neurologist Oliver Sacks. In a 2013 interview Brad Pitt told Esquire magazine that he suspects he has the condition as well.
She has tools to jog her memory.
“It was very embarrassing to me to not know the kids,” she says. “Now I’m smart. I take pictures of them, take them home and study the faces. One may have a particularly wide or oval face. And I know which ones those are.”
The parents know that caring touch well. Mark Payne, a black belt from Basehor, was one of Dugan’s karate teachers. Then his young son, Michael, suffered a head injury and became Dugan’s first student.
“Helen took it on herself to give Michael special training above and beyond what any other instructors would do,” he says.
Despite balance and vision problems, Michael earned a green belt, eight steps above a beginner.
“Back then there wasn’t anybody doing this,” says Michael’s mom, Patti Payne. “It was Helen who thought about helping these people. Nobody taught her how to do it.”
Mother and son took karate together.
“He would fall all the time,” Patti says. “But Helen was there to say, ‘Hey, let’s try this.’ She was always trying different techniques and thinking outside the box for how Michael could pass these requirements.”
In time, the training improved Michael’s balance, self-esteem and life.
But while Dugan is patient, that doesn’t mean she’s lax, Mark Payne says.
“She will cut them no slack if they are not giving 100 percent of what they can give,” he says. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, this poor disabled boy.’ It’s, ‘You can do better than that!’ But at the same time she knows how to pull back when somebody can’t. That’s what separates her from a normal instructor.”
Teaching kids with special needs touches her heart.
“When you see a child get their first belt?” she says. “When you see them get their first trophy? Remember, these are kids who don’t get awards. They don’t get trophies. And when you see the expression on their face when they get their first trophy, it’s such a self-esteem builder. I’ve had kids take their first steps here.”
Skills and confidence
Angela Sutton, who ran a martial arts school in Lebanon, Mo., before moving to Texas two years ago, knew Dugan was special after meeting her at a training camp in St. Louis in 2009.
“I noticed her because she was an elderly woman doing everything everybody else was doing,” she says. “I was very impressed with her.”
She was equally impressed by Dugan’s students.
“I watched one do a self-defense demonstration, and he was taking care of business,” she says. “He did take-downs, throws, knife disarms. You could tell he had Down syndrome, but you wouldn’t know he had special needs by his technique.”
Dugan never worries about what students can’t do. Instead, she builds on what they can do.
In a recent evening class, Dugan is working with grade school children. In the main training room, they line up on a red and blue mat facing their teacher, or sensei, as Dugan stands with her back to a wall of mirrors. Up above hang karate belts in 14 colors and white signs that read “self-discipline,” “respect,” “attitude,” “perseverance,” “cleanliness,” “honesty” and “integrity.”
The students learn footsteps, positions, karate terms and self-defense, and earn belts and patches for mastering certain skills.
For the last 14 years Dugan has had only one paid employee: dojo manager Steven Nagorski, a 37-year-old purple belt with Down syndrome who teaches karate, cleans the dojo and provides security.
“She’s the best sensei in the whole universe,” he says.
“This is a great program, but without Steven and my volunteer instructors and helpers I would have nothing,” she says.
Nagorski and several volunteer teachers and assistants help students kick balls through hoops, strike hand-held pads and block punches with their forearms. They bounce on trampolines, ride on scooters and use a variety of specialty equipment — some of which Dugan designed — to sharpen their skills.
Karate and other martial arts taught at Champs — including judo, jujitsu, tai chi and a defensive street-fighting discipline called Guided Chaos — can improve concentration, stamina, balance, motor skills, independence and self-esteem.
A sign on the wall reads “Life is 10 percent what happens to us, and 90 percent how we deal with it.”
“If you build on someone’s strengths,” she says, “everything else falls into place.”
Today Dugan is still building on her strengths, studying Guided Chaos. She takes the class from Brent Ames, a black-belt instructor who volunteers at her school.
Ames, who calls Dugan “a mentor for how I want to live my life,” respects her both as a teacher and a person.
“Helen is magnificent at quickly understanding a person and knowing how to motivate them,” he says. “She can read people better than anybody I’ve ever seen. There are very few people who can get to that level of instruction.”
Many say Dugan hasn’t gotten enough credit for what she has accomplished in her own life and what she has helped others accomplish in theirs.
She is too busy to worry about credit. Perhaps a quote in one of her brochures puts it best:
“Seek not to be famous, but to attain greatness. For only in giving do we become great.”
As she heads into her ninth decade, Dugan intends to give as long as she can.
“If you want to grow old, go to a retirement community,” she says. “You can all sit around and talk about your ailments. Put me with the kids. They keep you young.”
To reach James A. Fussell, call 816-234-4460 or email email@example.com.
DINNER FOR CHAMPS
A fundraiser for Champs Achievers is scheduled for April 25 at the Veterans of Foreign Wars, 9550 Pflumm Road in Lenexa. The night includes dinner, a wine auction and jazz. Tickets are available at the karate school, 13936 W. 108th St. in Lenexa. For more information about the program, to enroll yourself or a child, or to find out how you can help, call 913-648-1178 or visit champsachievers.org.