Fort Walton Beach First United Methodist Church offers a Martial Arts Ministry with biweekly taekwondo classes for children and adults.
Dennis Barebo loves seeing the look on students’ faces when he changes the color of their belts.
He loves watching their confidence grow when they break a board with their bare hand, lead a class or memorize a form, a movement pattern. Barebo, a sixth-degree master in taekwondo, started the Martial Arts Ministry at Fort Walton Beach First United Methodist Church in April 2008 so he could teach children and adults the true purpose of the sport.
“Everybody thinks martial arts is all about punching and kicking,” Barebo said. “It’s not. Yes, it involves punching and kicking, but most of it is what’s behind the scenes — teaching people how to stand still, how to respect others, have self-discipline. That’s what it’s all about.”
After 24 years as the church’s business administrator, Barebo was allowed to retire in May, but only under one condition: He had to continue his martial arts ministry. It continues to thrive more than 10 years later.
Going to the mat
When Barebo had the idea, he took it to the mat.
He spent 2007 pitching the Martial Arts Ministry to church committees. The class started with 20 students in a small, carpeted classroom that couldn’t hold more than 15.
Carpet wasn’t ideal.
“By the end of the day, your feet would be killing you,” Barebo said. “We kept growing. People kept calling, and I never advertised. I had a waiting list of about two years.”
The ministry expanded into two classrooms at the back of the church, but it needed more. The church offered a larger space, but with one problem: concrete floors.
Again, not ideal.
In 2015, Barebo wrote a grant proposal to The Ware Foundation that earned enough money to take his idea to the mat — a giant blue one, to be exact. Now more than 120 students and 15 volunteer instructors shuffle across that mat every week.
The ministry serves all ages, starting with the Mighty Tigers group of ages 4 to 6 and ending with adults as old as in their 80s. It even has its own newsletter, the Kick’n Times, to keep people up to date on taekwondo news, facts and events.
When Barebo started taekwondo in the 1980s through the American Taekwondo Association, he never thought this is where he would be.
“When I was coming up through my taekwondo training, I told my instructor, ‘I don’t want to deal with little kids,'” Barebo said. “'They drive me crazy.’ It turns out, the 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds are great because they love the fact that you sit down and talk to them and have an adult conversation with them about their day.”
Some parents are apprehensive when they first see their children in martial arts.
“The parents are like, ‘Oh, my gosh, my kids will never sit still,’” Barebo said. “Give ‘em time. Watch the kids who have done it for five or six years. You watch a kid who starts at age 4, and by the time they’re 10, they’ve been doing martial arts for half their life. It’s ingrained in them. Those are the kids you see who stand and go, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ ‘Yes, sir.’ They’re very polite. They change. That’s what’s exciting — to watch the positive changes martial arts has on people.”
‘God’s always watching’
Sports are expensive.
Martial arts are especially financially demanding because athletes train 12 months a year, Barebo said.
“There’s a lot of families that can’t afford it,” Barebo said. “We started this ministry so that anybody who wants to be part of a martial arts program can do it.”
Barebo intentionally made the class affordable. Dues go toward paying for belts and student events, such as bowling and pizza nights. The students are a mixture of church members and non-church members.
“A lot of parents like it because it’s hosted by a church, so they feel like it’s a safer environment,” Barebo said. “They like the fact that it’s a Christian-based program.”
The students learn taekwondo, self-defense and character traits. Being hosted in a church gives the class a different atmosphere, Barebo said.
While not every class incorporates Scripture, Barebo will use it as a foundation during “mat chats." In a recent one, he used Colossians 3:20, which refers to children obeying their parents.
“I said, ‘If you respect your mom and she says, “Don’t eat the cookies,” and she bakes all these cookies and you decide to take one, what happens when you take it?’” Barebo said. “I said, ‘Who’s gonna see it?’ God’s always watching. You might pull one over on mom, but you’re not going to pull one over on God.”
Pastor Dave Barkalow thinks the ministry teaches important lessons, citing a phrase Barebo says at every belt test.
“He says, ‘Actually, a black belt is a white belt who didn’t give up,’” Barkalow said. “I think that’s such a great lesson for our students to push through adversity.”
If there’s one thing the class isn’t about, it’s violence. He teaches students to fight so they never have to, Barebo said.
“Come to a class,” Barkalow said. “You will see pretty quickly this is not about beating people up. This is about being mentally fit, physically fit and caring and having good character, common sense.”
Taekwondo was supposed to be for Pamela Moyer’s son, Ty.
When the Destin resident enrolled him during preschool, she admits it turned into something for her. Moyer has gone for 10 years and is now an instructor.
"It definitely surprised me,” Moyer said. “It’s cathartic. If you ever have a problem, you talk about it with your colleagues, other people there, as you’re still learning and getting exercise. It’s a one-stop shop.”
Taekwondo taught her she was capable of so much more than she thought.
“It helps you explore that, that you can do more than you think you can achieve — whether it’s breaking a board or memorizing a form,” Moyer said. “You can reach your best potential among friends, because it’s such an encouraging environment.”
Three of Barkalow’s children are in the Martial Arts Ministry: Rosie, 8, Michael, 6, and Xavier, 5. Taekwondo has had the greatest effect on Rosie, who Barkalow said is the shy and reserved one.
“She’s tried other sports, but she never found her thing,” Barkalow said. “When she found taekwondo – it’s her thing. She’s at home practicing her forms, working on her push-ups. She has me here for the special practices.”
Two months ago, Barebo named Rosie one of the junior instructors to help lead the preschool students.
“It’s been the highlight of her year,” Barkalow said. “It’s been so good for her self-esteem, her confidence, her activity level.”
Barebo won’t take credit for the ministry’s impact. He points to a photo of the other instructors, and attributes it to their volunteer work.
He is the rock, though, Moyer said.
“He has been so generous with his time, energy and giving — that to me is a great leader slash instructor," Moyer said. "Having such a strong instructor has carried me through all these years and makes me want to keep coming back.”