One year ago, 9-year-old Jillian Chae was in what her grandma called "a funk."
The young cancer patient from Rochester Hills had lost all her hair. She had a port in her body for chemotherapy. She had no energy.
But then she met a girl named Haley at a charity event who led her to a place that would transform her world: a karate program for kids just like her.
One year later, with a full head of hair and a twinkle in her eye, Jillian stood tall and proud on a karate mat, took in a deep breath, slowly exhaled, then belted out with all her might: "Power! Peace! Purpose!"
Welcome to Rabbi G's miracle center, better known as Kids Kicking Cancer — a national nonprofit organization based in Southfield that teaches martial arts for free to children who are battling cancer or facing other significant challenges. The program, founded by Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg, focuses on helping children defeat stress, anger and pain using meditation and breathing exercises, which help them get through scary experiences like getting blood drawn, sitting still in an MRI machine or having chemotherapy.
The Karate Kids: Kicking cancer, finding purpose & healing souls
“Everybody stand up. We’re going to breathe in all this light, and we’re going to push out all the darkness, all the pain, all the fear,” a KCC martial arts instructor said to a recent class of students, repeating the exercise over and over again. “One more time, take a deep breath in. … Good job. Now take a bow.”
The program’s mantra: Power. Peace. Purpose.
If the smiles on the kids’ faces are any indication, it works. Perhaps equally convincing are the smiles on the faces of the parents, who sit back at class and marvel at the optimism and strength their children have gained by being around other kids like them and learning how to cope together.
“When you have sick children, others don’t understand the sickness and pain,” said Wilma Belew of Detroit, whose three children — all of whom have sickle cell anemia — are enrolled in the program. “The kids love the instructors. They make each one of the kids feel like they are front and center.”
Belew said her kids, who are hospitalized every few months with fever, a pain crisis or pneumonia, especially love being around the other kids.
“It’s good to have those who understand them,” said Belew, whose daughter, Stonynee, 9, tugged at her sleeve at a recent class to make sure her mom saw her punch-and-kick moves. “They took us in and we are one big happy family.”
Phyllis Chae, Jillian’s mother, agreed, noting her family struggled to help Jillian regain her strength after her cancer diagnosis in 2014. Her daughter needed a boost her family couldn’t give her.
“It wasn’t until another kid said, ’I did it.’ The kids help each other out. They listen to them,” Chae said.
Jillian was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma in April of 2014. It’s a form of cancer that forms in muscle tissue and appears as a lump or swelling that keeps getting bigger. Jillian is now in remission and entering her second year in the Kids Kicking Cancer program. She loves her new-found power.
During a recent class, when the martial arts instructor asked if anyone had used their new power skills lately, she shot up her hand.
“I went roller-skating,” Jillian said. “And I kept falling.”
Her instructor responded: “But you got up and kept trying?”
For 56-year-old Richard Plowden, the program’s head martial arts instructor who has won numerous titles in his 40 years of practicing karate, it’s stories like Jillian’s that keep him going. Working with sick children — particularly those who are terminal — can be emotionally gut-wrenching, especially given the connections the instructors make along the way.
The instructors at Kids Kicking Cancer don’t just teach the children martial arts. They become their friends and confidantes. When sick children are alone in the hospital and their minds start to wander, the instructors show up to keep them company. When parents call them in the middle of the night with an emergency, they show up at the ER.
And when some of their students are about to leave this world, they stay at their side.
“I have friends who ask me, ‘How do you do this?’ “ Plowden said. “I get a lot of satisfaction. Knowing I’m making a difference? That’s more gratifying than winning any championship.”
At the center of this life-changing program is the charismatic man the kids call “Rabbi G,” a clinical assistant professor in pediatrics at Wayne State University’s medical school. He founded Kids Kicking Cancer in 1999, nearly 18 years after losing his first child, Sara, to leukemia.
"For me, this has been a very personal mission. My first mentor was our beautiful little girl," Goldberg writes in his book, "A Perfect God Created an Imperfect World Perfectly."
A framed photo of his blue-eyed, blonde little girl sits atop a tall bookshelf in Goldberg’s office — a powerful motivator for a man who left the pulpit to help terminally ill children around the world find purpose through karate.
It happened while Goldberg was working as the director of Camp Simcha in New York. It's a camp for kids with cancer and other blood disorders. There, he met a 5-year-old boy named Josh in a chemotherapy room, where he was being held down by two nurses as a third tried to put a syringe into a port in his chest. The boy was screaming and struggling. Goldberg intervened.
He asked Josh if he wanted to learn karate. The boy’s eyes lit up. After 20 minutes of Tai Chi breathing exercises, he relaxed, to the point where he didn’t realize the nurses had finished their job.
Kids Kicking Cancer was conceived.
“When children know they have purpose, they have less pain,” Goldberg told the Free Press in a recent interview. “Pain is a message you don’t have to listen to.”
Kids Kicking Cancer is now in Canada, Israel and Italy, where children with cancer have helped conduct stress seminars at Fortune 500 companies, teaching executives at companies like Pfizer how to breathe in the good and let out the bad.
“It’s all about the children becoming teachers,” Goldberg said. “When children know they have a purpose — it changes everything.”
Contact Tresa Baldas: firstname.lastname@example.org