The Skillgi Story
I will begin the Skillgi story in reverse with a kid’s birthday party I hosted for a young girl in my martial arts academy just before COVID hit. The party was constantly interrupted by a young boy who seemed intent on making it “his” birthday party by being demanding, disruptive, and rude. I could see that his mother was not comfortable with his behavior but there was little she could do but watch.
After the party she spoke with me and informed me that her son was on the ASD Spectrum and his behavior was a result of that. She also informed me that her son was enrolled in a local martial arts school and had achieved the rank of Red Belt, which puts him very close to being a Black Belt in that organization. She went on to explain that the school was not going to renew his enrollment contract and that she was going to have to find another school. He also had a sister in the same school, so the owner stood to lose two students. I asked how his behavior was handled by the instructor and I will not go into detail but it was absolutely inappropriate and showed that they had no clue how to handle kids with special needs.
Now we go back in time a little to the late 90’s when I was invited to teach at the Passaic County Cerebral Palsy Center in Passaic, NJ. In my phone conversation with the director, I saw the need to be completely honest and explain to her that I had always had a fear and anxiety of handicapped people. I explained that It stemmed from visits to a VA Hospital as a young kid to see my grandfather who served in WWII and seeing lot of badly disfigured veterans which affected my perception of people who looked different from what I thought was normal. I was ashamed of what I had told her until she calmly told me that its actually more common than I thought and that I was doing a wonderful thing for not only the kids but for myself, she said, "You're never too old to teach yourself a lesson and improve the person that you are".
My anxiety and fear melted immediately when I saw such young children who would never be able to run and play like other kids. Myself and my assistant taught for a week and it was during that time where I discovered that this may be my calling. That notion was supported when the Director told me that she has rarely seen anyone take to these kids that way that I did. Her compliment was confirmed when I held a board for a little girl confined to a wheelchair who was paralyzed from the neck down with the exception of her pinky which she used to mover her chair. When she wheeled into the board and I snapped it in half her lip curled up and she smiled. It was the first time she had ever done that. Another sign that this was something I needed to be a part of.
Fast forwarding now 2010 when I owned a martial arts school in eastern Pennsylvania. A woman came into my school carrying her daughter and crying hysterically. I thought she was running from someone so I quickly brought them both into the back so I could figure out what was going on. After calming down she told me that her 7-year-old daughter was going to be falsely classified as Autistic and sent to another town for school because she refused to talk in school and social settings. The mother tried to explain that her daughter had been diagnosed with Selective Mutism and was actually very bright but she refused to talk. Thus far every mental health specialist she brought her daughter to was unable to get her to talk. Her mother told me that she had heard martial arts was good for kids and that this was literally her last hope. I had no idea what Selective Mutism was but went home that night and did my research and read how the experts approached the process of helping people who suffered from this type of anxiety. Everything I read had already been tried so I thought I’d try something different.
After over a month of attending classes’, she was participating well, smiling and engaging but still not talking. One day I sat down next to her on the floor and said, “You don’t like to talk, do you?” she shook her head no and I told her it was okay because I didn’t like to talk either. Her quizzical look told me that she was surprised because I obviously talked while teaching. I explained that this was the only place I talked and that I had a huge fear of talking outside my academy. We now had common ground. The next week I sat down and flatly asked her if people thought she was stupid? She nodded yes. “But you’re not, are you?” She nodded no. I told her people thought I was stupid too because I wasn’t a big business man who wore a suit. I told her that I’m tired of people thinking I’m stupid and that I’m going to try and talk to a stranger that week and that I’d let her know how it came out. My last words to her were that I was “sooooo scared”.
When we met again, I told her in my giddiest voice that I had said hi to someone and they said hi back. I told her how coo, it felt and that I’m going to keep trying to talk more and more even if I’m scared.
Two days later she walked into my school and I said, “Hi Ally” and she responded, “Hi Sir” …her mother had tears running down her face and I had a case of soggy eyeballs, but I wasn’t, you know…crying.
The next week she spoke to the bus driver. The week after that she spoke in class. About a month later she stood up in her class and sang in front of everyone.
I've always had a knack for connecting with children. Perhaps it's because, in many ways, I am still somewhat of a child. I was always the guy feeding the dog under the table and playing games with the kids at parties. Forget it if they had a Bounce Round! Teaching kids martial arts certainly had its challenges as well as its very high points. However, teaching kids with any type of disability had a much different affect on me. I wanted to do something to enhance these kids lives and help them to socialize and be able to perform basic motoring skills that would offer them inclusion in other activities. So the writing has been on the wall for quite some time for me and a few years ago I had an idea for a uniform and program for kids with and without special needs.
The first uniform attempt at a uniform was made in my kitchen with cookie cutter shapes, hobby paint, and an old uniform of mine. The original name was going to be the Wonder Gi but I changed it to Skillgi and began the year-long journey into researching the science of colors, shapes, and the various types of individual needs that this program could enhance. I then focused on creating the curriculum and games, the Skillgi Flash Cards, and the Skill-Drill Floor Mat. The combination of these Skillgi Program elements is what makes this program so unique and innovative. We are always looking to enhance the Skillgi Program by adding new elements into the program's equation that may enhance additional needs.
I showed the original Skillgi to one of my students who, along with his 2 children was training with me. As a parent who also helped me by assisting in he kid's classes, he immediately saw a need for a uniform like the Skillgi and was so impressed with the ingenuity of the program that he decided to become my partner and add his Wall Street and business experience to the new company. We began the process of Patenting and Trademarking the Skillgi Program as well as setting up manufacturing, marketing, website design, video production and development of the Skillgi Flash Cards, Skillgi Skill-Drill Floor Mat, and our newest addition to the Skillgi Program, Skillgi Bean Bags.
Below is the Skillgi Story in pictures. It is the Skillgi Mission to enhance every child's life by giving them the skills and capabilities to be happy, to be healthy, and to stay safe.
First Skillgi Mock-Up
Cardboard, cookie cutters and hobby ink
Ready to make history or a mess
An Old Uniform
First Drafts for Patent Applications
First Skillgi Prototype from The Factory
The First Skillgi
First Skillgi Photo Shoot
First Skillgi Videos
Skillgi in Action
Skillgi Flash Cards
Skillgi Bean Bags