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Husband and wife martial arts masters inspire young and old
By J.A. Jones, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — At Thomas “Jet” Jackson Recreation Center something special was happening on Sunday afternoon, evidenced by the buzzing energy of nearly 60 youngsters in white martial arts uniforms with parents and grandparents in tow, some who’d arrived nearly a half-hour early for the class.
Members of the “Midtown Miracles” martial arts program, sponsored by Chief Anthony Holloway and the St. Petersburg Police Department, the mini martial artists arranged their uniforms and practiced their basic moves while waiting for Grand Master ‘Soke’ Bryant K. Harrell and his wife Master ‘Sensei’ Leotte-Keiva Harrell.
Together, the husband and wife team are the highly trained and skilled martial artists – and pastors – who also run the “Fists of Faith” ministry.
“We have to give big props and respect to Chief Anthony Holloway for helping put this program together,” acknowledged Soke Bryant. “He chose Leotte and me to take and run it, and we’re running it, and we’re going to run it ‘til the wheels fall off. I’m looking for a thousand kids or more. We want to set this city on fire through martial arts,” Harrell declared, his enthusiasm infectious.
“Chief Holloway wanted this to be a program to get those at-risk children, before the gangs got them, before the street got them,” Sensei Leotte added. “So, originally, it was aimed at kids between the ages of 4 and 11. At first, we got a handful, then everyone wanted to come. And we’re not going to turn anybody away, so it’s blossomed.”
As the Harrells entered the class, they were surrounded by some of their young students, who clearly exhibited a combination of respect, love and trust for their trainers. Likewise, the compassion and determination to inspire their students were evident in both instructors; their energy was always uplifting and empowering as they commanded, demanded, and sometimes even cajoled their charges into displaying the focus and grit needed to complete the seemingly endless array of drills in the no-downtime, one-hour-plus class.
Bryant, who is a 10th-degree black belt, is one of only 250 practitioners featured in the 2017 American Martial Arts Alliance (AMAA) WHO’S WHO in the Martial Arts Legends Edition.
“I’ve been studying martial arts for almost 45 years since I was five years old,” the humble grandmaster with a teddy-bear warmth shared. “This is what kept me off the streets and out of trouble in Patterson, New Jersey, where I was born and raised. I give all credit and respect to my uncle, Joseph Harrell, a former Vietnam Vet; even before he went Vietnam, he started teaching me martial arts, jujitsu and aikido.”
Harrell, a former member of the U.S. Naval Special Forces, said that his own childhood challenges enabled him to connect with some of his students.
“My mom was raped, so I am a product of a rape. I know what it feels like, in a sense, when children are neglected; I was neglected. I didn’t have a dad in my life other than my uncle and a few men in the community who looked out for me and kept me off the streets and out of trouble. So that’s what I want to do, no matter where I go, whatever community it is…I want to give back, and help people, and help save lives.”
Leotte, a fifth-degree blackbelt, started training in her early 20s and has been at it for 17 years. A school teacher as well as an actress and singer, she was equally passionate about their purpose.
“The discipline, the training the focus, the digging deep, not giving up, it just doesn’t apply to martial arts, it’s in everything: their schoolwork, at home, the discipline and focus with their parents, with their families. I tell them, you shouldn’t have to be wearing your belt for someone to know you’re a martial artist. All of our top students are either straight A or honor roll. So, it really shows in everything they do, it’s across the board.”
She also shared how martial arts offers parents and children new ways of looking at their strengths.
“Many parents don’t believe their children can do these things; they have never seen their children show this level of respect. So, a huge thing we teach the parents is, ‘Look, if they can show us this kind of respect here, they can do it anywhere. If they don’t, it’s simply by choice, not due to an inability. Because if you can see it here, and we’re not even their family, and they can listen this way for us — then they can do the same for you.’”
Parents at the program seemed to agree that the impact on their children was profound.
One mother, Carmen, beamed as she showed pictures of her children with their trophies. “Both of their attitudes and personalities have changed because they love what they do; they’re up at 5:30 practicing their moves. David was a little hyper and all over the place, but now he’s very focused and more respectful. Kaylin was very shy, always behind me, would never speak to anyone…but now she’s very outspoken, not afraid of anyone. It’s been a very positive change in our lives.”
Another parent, Randy, nodded. “Gavyyn used to have rough behavior at school… now he has nearly perfect days every day. The obvious clichés are true; it’s helped with discipline, gives them something to do, and has given them a respect for authority they didn’t see before.”
Right now, the class is a steal at only $5 a month. “That’s a miracle in itself,” laughed Bryant. “That will probably change, but for now, think about it: there’s no program on the planet that’s $5 a month. And we’re here every Tuesday at 6:00, and every Sunday at 2:30. Then we have the awesome adult program, the Midtown Mamasans and Papasans, at 6:30 on Mondays and Wednesdays.”
Harrell attested to how the training for parents and their children offered a place of connection where kids and parents can share what they’ve learned in classes. He also encourages families to work out and train together.
“The coolest thing about the Midtown Miracles and Mamasans and Papasans is that when we have parents that train together with their children they have something in common to talk about. Every time you turn the TV on, you see something about martial arts. And now the mom or dad are sitting there watching, eating cereal, and the kids are saying, ‘Hey we know that! We do that technique, hey Mom, did you learn that move yet?’”
“And now they’re engaged in conversation,” he continued, “the cell phones are down, and next it’s, ‘Hey let’s get the pads!’ Now mom and dad are taking turns practicing kicking and grabbing and holding and touching and embracing.”
Harrell said their ministry uses martial arts to share the love of Jesus Christ. “I am a consecrated Bishop and she’s an ordained prophetess and people see that in our walk, not what we say,” Bryant testified. “They see that through the martial arts. And it’s love.”
Leotte nodded. “It’s a family affair. Everybody that comes in, whether they’ve been with us for years, or it’s their first day they’re signing up, we want them to know, ‘You’re family, you’re part of the family now.’ And we treat each other like family, and we respect each other like family, and it’s beautiful to see the rapport among the parents…because this is the village they talked about. This is the village.”
Bryant thanked the Thomas Jackson Center for giving a home to the program, stating that even staff at the center said they’d never witnessed a martial arts program like theirs at the center.
Leotte concurred that their uplifting spirit is contagious, and continued that their students and parents, “…see our friendship. And that’s something that’s so rare, especially in marriages. So, when we go out together as a couple, and when we’re ministering, whether it’s in martial arts or not, they see so much, just in us being together, and our rapport with each other, and our respect for each other, it’s such a blessing.”
For Leotte there is also another driving force behind her mission – and it’s personal.
“I was a victim of abuse, sexual abuse – as a young child, and also as a teenager, I was raped. And I remember it was such a helpless feeling. But having gone through it several times, I know now that there are things I can do to help empower myself. And I train with a passion because I’ve been there, and I know there are so many kids and so many people that are being abused, and I want them to know that there are ways that you can protect yourself, there are ways that you can heal.”
Leotte insisted it’s not just the physical self-defense that those who come to their classes will learn, but also a sense of spiritual and mental empowerment, a confidence, and an ability to find the voice that abusive behavior by another so often suppresses; she encouraged anyone who has been abused to come down and try martial arts. “It’s so wonderful to see the healing that takes place in some of our students that we know have been abused and are going through it. This can help.”
Bryant stated that the key is in, “…not wilding out or wallowing in your victim[hood]— but being victorious, and using these tools to become that victorious person, become that warrior, reach in and touch that warrior spirit; don’t walk around being victimized, but become a victor. And that’s one of the things that we encourage.“
For more information, call Grand Master Bryant K. Harrell at (727) 648-8516, Master Leotte-Keiva Harrell at (727) 623-3605, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Classes are held at Thomas Jackson Recreation Center, 1000 28th St S.