Forging Young Warriors

Forging Young Warriors

By Kevin Mercer

Nathan Ligo has trained with the finest karate instructors in the world and believes wholeheartedly in the central tenants of karate training: Strength, discipline and self-control. But the Chapel Hill karate instructor wasn’t always so disciplined. 

When he was 13, Ligo began karate classes at the University of North Carolina, after his mother registered him with the goal of improving his poor decision making and school performance. Ligo was so impressive during his training that his instructor, Seong Soo Choi, recommended Ligo train in Japan, which he did — as well as spend two years in South Korea and two in Hungary.

“I wasn’t a very happy kid at that time … The karate training gave me something to hold onto, and it made me strong and more confident, and as an adult, I want to be able to provide that for other people,” Ligo said.

Ligo, a karate student of 30 years, is now the founder, director and head instructor of his own karate school, or dojo, called the Ligo Dojo.

The Ligo Dojo has been a training ground for karate students in the Triangle — first Durham, and now Chapel Hill — for almost a decade. The Durham location persisted for six years until the business relocated to Chapel Hill four years ago.

The Ligo Dojo has experienced tremendous growth while at the Chapel Hill campus — it is now training about 60 students, roughly half being children and half being adults. Ligo said the number of students has grown since transitioning to Chapel Hill, especially the adults’ class. One reason for this lies in a distinctive feature of the Ligo Dojo: The Free Parent Policy.

The policy aims to encourage adult participation by allowing the parents of enrolled children to join the adults’ classes free of charge, as long as they are committed members who attend two classes a week, or eight a month. If they fail to meet the requirement, they must pay the $109 monthly rate.

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Ligo Dojo started with a special goal: Change the lives of juvenile delinquents.

Ligo met with Donald Pinchback, the chief juvenile court counselor in Durham County at the time, who began to refer juvenile delinquents to the Ligo Dojo hoping the self-discipline and self-improvement karate encourages would transform the lives of the young people as much as it did Ligo’s 30 years ago.

The Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, JCPC, almost immediately started providing funds to the Ligo Dojo.

In order to continue to receive the vital funding from JCPC, Ligo created the Young Warriors Program, which has received funding from Orange County, the Town of Carrboro and the Wells Fargo Foundation, along with the State of North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice this year.

Children in the Young Warriors program account for 10 percent of the student population and are anonymous, Ligo said.

Alex Abdo, an 11-year old, wanted to learn how to fight — but not because he wanted to fight someone. He wanted to learn how to defend himself.

So, four years ago, Abdo registered himself with the Ligo Dojo of Budo Karate to learn to do just that. Now, he practices karate as a brown belt and is set to receive his black belt in a few months at the Ligo Dojo.

Adults and children who have a black or brown belt are expected to enhance their personal training through leading all or part of a class. That may mean instructing a children’s class.

Amy Kirshner, a second-degree black belt and six-year student of the Ligo Dojo, has been tasked with instructing the children.

“Teaching helps me be a better student, in part because I see the things the kids need to learn and realize I can do better at them, too,” she said. “But it’s also about giving back.”

Kirshner, whom her class calls ‘sempai’ – senior student – said the spirit of karate can be captured in one word: Osu, which can mean ‘I endeavor to persevere’ in Japanese, she said.

Kirshner’s teaching method of tough love and discipline has resonated with her students. Abdo said he appreciates Kirshner’s instruction, as she has seen him rise from a white belt to a brown belt, one away from black.

“She’s amazing,” Abdo said. “She’s one of the best. She taught us many things. She particularly taught me – she’s taught me my whole way.”

Ligo attributed the success of his dojo to instruction in what he believes to be the proper brand of karate.

“Our kids enjoy karate training, and its safety and fun is a critical part of teaching children, but we try and make the fun about progress and about learning rather than about fun and games,” Ligo said.

Abdo thrives off of Ligo’s tough-love method and has seen the fruits of his labor as he has advanced in belts.

“It feels great,” Abdo said. “I’ve been working toward this thing (black belt) for three or four years, and to accomplish it would be a huge success for me.”