KUMC photo

CHAMPS Achievers, A KUMC program, meets Wednesday evenings to teach people with special needs martial arts skills. Occupational therapy students and professors help with the class. 

To gain occupational therapy experience outside of the classroom, members of the University of Kansas School of Health Professions find themselves volunteering in a variety of places – even in a martial arts class.

The CHAMPS Achievers program is a Kansas City-based class that teaches martial arts to people with special needs. While students get to learn new defense skills, the program also helps students in the occupational therapy program gain a better understanding of hands-on experiences. 

“We use this as a classroom environment where if we’re teaching something out of the textbook, you really don’t have a good sense of it, whereas if you see it in real life,” said Jeff Radel, Ph.D., associate dean for academic and student affairs and associate professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy Education. “In real life, here it is — talk to the student, talk to the family about what it’s like. That’s going to give you a better insight about what practicing as an OT might look like.”

CHAMPS meets Wednesday evenings at the Kirmayer Fitness Center on the University of Kansas Medical Center’s Kansas City campus and has a class for both children and adults.

Each classroom setting offers an adapted environment to accommodate the needs of both groups. The younger age group classroom is a more high-energy martial arts environment, whereas the adult group focuses more on teaching mobility skills. However, both classes offer outlets for physical activity, social interaction and a sense of both success and discipline.

“It’s a way for those kids who may not have as many outlets for activity or as much socialization or self-esteem or whatever to participate in a pretty fun activity where they actually learn some skills that they can be proud of,” Radel said.

Students studying occupational therapy help with the CHAMPS classes to gain service-learning experience. While many do not know martial arts, they are able to participate regardless.

“CHAMPS first caught my eye because it was kind of just an interesting idea in the first place. I had never heard of teaching a martial arts class for children with autism or other disabilities,” OT student Katie Lacy said. “So that was kind of my first draw to it – I had never heard of it. I had never participated in martial arts before. I was kind of just intrigued by it.”

For OT student Shalee Mog, however, the CHAMPS program immediately drew her in due to her previous martial arts experience. However, her time volunteering there has helped her in ways besides getting to continue karate.

“It’s a really good learning experience, and it’s very fun,” Mog said. “I really look forward to coming here every week to it, so I definitely think that more students should get involved.”

No matter the reason for getting involved with the program, CHAMPS is providing valuable skills that will help students in their future occupational therapy careers.

“It’s a great opportunity to learn about planning out sessions, to learn about grading and improving and changing activities you’re going to do across time to meet current needs,” OT student Sarah Jones said. “With the kids' group, you definitely learn more about planning group activities and adapting those when they inevitably don’t go to plan because kids don’t really like plans, but it’s a great exposure to patients — especially with the adults' group.”

CHAMPS Achievers has become an important outlet in the Kansas City area, with Johnson County having around 50,000 people with disabilities. The physical activity and social interaction the program provides help serve this population.

Anyone can volunteer with CHAMPS, not just students studying occupational therapy. More information about the program can be found at champsachieversfoundation.tumblr.com.