KILAUEA — Nalu Brede tightened the purple belt around his waist, balled up his fists and kicked a foot out in front of his face.
His face reddened as he shouted the Korean command word commonly used by fighters to express confidence and intimidate an opponent.
Later, the 11-year-old from Anahola explained why the taekwondo he practices is so important to him.
Believe it or not, it had nothing to do with tornado kicks.
“We learn about self-control,” the Kanuikapono Charter School student said. “We learn to obey our parents because self-control follows that, too.”
It’s not just about kicking and punching, apparently.
Sparring and lessons in self-restraint are all part of the syllabus at Rex Taekwondo, a grassroots martial arts school operated by Steve Rex of Kilauea. The 54-year-old owner and instructor coaches 55 kids ages 4 and up, plus a few adults, at classes held three days a week at Christ Memorial Episcopal Church’s Parish Hall in Kilauea.
“You train them to fight so they don’t fight,” he said. “Because if they’re confident with themselves, they’re not going to be pushed into a fight.
“We’re really just preparing these kids for life.”
Rex, who is the pastor at Kilauea’s Calvary Chapel North Shore Church, started practicing taekwondo when he was a 9-year-old kid growing up in San Clemente, California. It wasn’t until his teenage years that he started to take the practice seriously.
Back then, Rex wasn’t such a straight arrow. He flirted with drugs and gang membership for awhile until the tools he learned in fighting helped him find his way.
Rex Taekwondo was born in 1980 out of Rex’s desire to give back by empowering youth. He doesn’t want to see his students make his same mistakes.
“One of the sad things I see as a pastor and as a teacher is the neglect of kids on this island,” he said. “It’s almost like there’s a lack of investing in our children, who are going to be running this island. If we don’t put time into them now, they’re not going to put time into us when they’re the ones running this place and we’re looking to them for help.
“This is all about me wanting to stay connected with the people rather than hide in a church.”
For the kids, it’s about fun and personal growth.
Kala’e Abram, 10, of Princeville, said taekwondo has taught him the importance of helping others.
“I do it so I’m more rounded and a better person,” said Marshall Antony, 14, of Kilauea. “And it feels cool to know you can defend yourself.”
Respect is another hallmark of Rex’s taekwondo class. So is good behavior. Kids who misbehave at home or in school can’t come to class.
The kids agree, it’s a huge deterrant.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Rex’s taekwondo class had 32 students, including a handful of girls, a couple adults and kids with learning and behavioral disabilities.
The enterprise is island-style, with students of all ages practicing punch blocks side-by-side. No one seems to mind. The Tiny Tigers — a name given to students ages 4 to 8 — admire and immitate their more advanced counterparts, which Rex figures helps them stay committed.
It’s also all-in-the-family. Rex’s 25-year-old son Joshua Rex is the assistant coach. His two grandsons don their purple belts for class three times a week.
“It’s rare to find a taekwondo school that teaches you not to fight, but that’s what this is,” Rex said. “It’s rare to have a business owner who isn’t doing it to make money, but that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to teach.”