The National Education Association reports that nearly one-third of all school-aged children are affected by bullying on a monthly basis—a statistic that Edgewater’s Joe Van Deuren has committed his life to changing.
But it wasn’t until he was 40 that the local man figured out that his “life calling” was to help kids overcome bullying and to stop it in the early years of their development.
Now, as the leader of Balanced Life Skills Martial Arts in Annapolis, Van Deuren is developing a systematic and almost scientific way of combating bullying and sharing it with the community in weekly workshops.
Fighting Bullying with Martial Arts
After watching his youngest child, now 24, progress through all the levels of schooling, Van Deuren is now teaching kids how to stop bullying in classrooms and how to prevent it before it’s even a reality on the playground. In his workshop-like seminar called “Focus on Friendship, Bully Prevention Workshop,” he takes his vast experience in martial arts and applies it to instilling confidence and peace in young people.
“I started really studying martial arts in all its aspects—in the spiritual aspect too—thinking a lot deeper than just the physical stuff,” Van Deuren said. “I was bullied as a child, but I don’t know if that’s what drove me to this. When I graduated from school, had children and was in a fortunate situation, I just recognized there were issues that crosses the line whether kids were in public school or private school.”
Van Deuren breaks down his training for kids into six tools ranging from five-step, conflict-handling processes to self-confidence boosters. He focuses on attitude, awareness and authenticity while training workshop attendants. One of the most unique things he does is work with kids as young as 4- and 5-years old.
“I don’t think we should be waiting until they get to middle school. By the time they’re 13, their character is solidified,” Van Deuren said. “I have kids in my school that are 4. I’m beginning to already do things with them that sets the groundwork that teachers them about friendship.”
The workshops are divided by age and gender for all children older than kindergarten. While including taekwondo, he teaches them the values of communication, empathy, understanding and facing confrontational personalities.
A 'Gem' in the Community
Local mom Kate Treatman-Clark said she constantly repeats the words of "Mr. Joe" to her children, and that his rapport with kids is special.
"It is amazing to watch some of the kids who have been working with Joe for years," Treatman-Clark said. "They are an amazing group of compassionate, responsible, talented and disciplined young adults."
Van Deuren's influence doesn't stop with just children either.
"Joe is a gem in our community," said local resident Paula Fish. "I took some women's strength and self-defense classes with him ... He is worthy of our esteem."
Van Deuren is humbled by such complements.
“This is a life calling. I have some really big ideas of things I’m going to do in this county. I’m laying the groundwork for them now,” Van Deuren said.
The martial arts expert also said that his current season of life has allowed him to focus on the things that truly matter and not just making money with the workshops. Van Deuren said he’s able to avoid problems that he sees in other martial art studios.
“Too many martial arts schools are like McDojos—for ‘x’ number of dollars, you get a black belt,” Van Deuren said.
Vision for the Future
Moving forward, Van Deuren dreams of having peer-to-peer workshops throughout the county with high school students working with middle school students, and in turn have them help younger kids.
“It’s not about posters, it’s not about programs, it’s about people,” Van Deuren said. “In any given school, the culture is driven by the principal … If bullying is a major issue to them, they will have a lot less of it. If something is more important than that, like test scores, it doesn’t happen.”
“We’re not teaching math or sciences, we’re teaching students. They’re eventually going to learn one-plus-one, but if they’re so scared they’re going to be bullied, they’re not going to learn a thing,” Van Deuren said.
What is the key to bully prevention in Anne Arundel County? Tell me in the comments.