Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Kid magnets

Wood River Valley men push kids to personal bests

Express Staff Writer

Oliver Whitcomb, owner and instructor for Sawtooth Martial Arts, demonstrates a move from the Korean martial art of Soo Bakh Do. Photo by David N. Seelig

Their styles may be are different, but the philosophies of Ketchum's own "kid magnets" are remarkably similar.

Mat Gershater tests kids' limits with his Mountain Adventure Tours camp, Mike Shane teaches survival skills at the Community School and Oliver Whitcomb instills strength and confidence through martial arts. Their methods are rooted in engendering respect, encouraging growth and insisting that a child be his or her best.

Sounds a lot like parenting, doesn't it? Somehow, though, it can be more effective coming from a 6-foot, 4-inch-tall man wearing a black belt.

The brilliance of it? The kids think they're just having fun.

Inner child meets outer child

When Gershater, the founder and figurehead of Mountain Adventure Tours (MAT) arrives at morning camp drop-off, the casual observer might think that Johnny Depp or some other favorite of the younger set was vacationing in Ketchum. Dozens of campers, each of whom Gershater knows by name, swarm, nip at and cling to "Mati." Those he can pick up and throw into the air, he does. Those who have outgrown that type of greeting get hugs and high fives.

From this trust and closeness comes empowerment, the key to Gershater's mission for his kids.

"It's a great day when a camper starts off thinking, 'There's no way I can swim in that river,'" he said. "By the end of the day, we've shown him where it is safe to swim and that there's someone who will stay with him, and there he goes, swimming in the river."

The sincere affection Gershater has for "his" kids is obvious to parents. Bex Wilkinson, who has known him for years and whose children are Mountain Adventure Tours regulars, has seen him weave his magic in a multitude of ways.

"Mati not only goes to the nines to make kids have fun while learning, he loves them almost as though they were his own," Wilkinson said. "Mat has been a foundation of stable influence and positive energy in a world full of confusion. He's always positive, and that is a rare trait in anyone, especially someone who deals with kids."

Pirie Grossman, another Mountain Adventure Tours devotee, has seen the influence Gershater has had on her two children.

"What I've seen Mati teach them is courage and compassion—courage to go beyond their limits and compassion for each other and their environment," she said. "I'm always amazed at how he remembers each and every child that goes through his camps.  He makes each child feel important and special."

Gershater credits his ability to connect with children with his inability to lose sight of the world from a child's perspective.

"All of us have this youthful energy inside us," he said. "I have an ability to tap into the youthfulness and connect with kids. They have a ton of light. My job is to help them share it."

Lessons in life, learned outdoors

Mike Shane elicits a similar reaction in elementary students at the Community School as Gershater does at camp. When Shane is in the classroom or preparing for a trip, it can only mean one thing: Something exciting is going to happen.

As the longstanding head of all things outside and fun, otherwise known as the elementary school's outdoor education program, Shane has talked hundreds of kids into hiking up steep hills, identifying animal scat and stepping into skate skis. All the while, the kids are learning—a lot. Just don't tell them that.

Nothing makes Shane happier than watching a child step up to the challenge and take on a leadership role.

"I like to get kids outside their comfort zone," he said. "If they take risks in the outdoors, they are more willing to take risks in the classroom that they might not have been able to. It's amazing to see the kids who don't necessarily shine in the classroom take charge outdoors."

Elementary school Head Laura Kennedy credits Shane's intrinsic belief in children's abilities and character with his ability to connect with them.

"Mike is great at inspiring confidence in kids and giving them the courage to try something new," Kennedy said. "I've seen this ability on countless trips. This confidence can then translate into the classroom, and kids always come back from trips feeling really proud of themselves."

Shane said the key to success when encouraging children to try new activities that might scare or worry them is patience, fortitude and a good dose of fun.

Perseverance helps, too. During a kindergarten fall trip, Shane worked with one student for more than half an hour. The little boy was paralyzed by fear at the thought of going into a cave where his classmates waited. With Shane's help, and his inability to let the child fail, he accomplished what was, for him, a monumental undertaking.

Shane's philosophy is simple and timeless.

"For me, it's treating them like people, not like kids," he said. "I try to set the tone for them to step up. You trust them and they feed off of it."

Helping kids master their bodies and their minds

While children generally greet Gershater and Shane with unfettered enthusiasm, the greeting they give Oliver Whitcomb of Sawtooth Martial Arts is usually "Yes, sir!"

The estimated 130 valley children who study the Korean martial art of Soo Bakh Do with Whitcomb find themselves sitting straighter, wiggling less and concentrating more when Whitcomb enters the room to train with them.

The discipline is foreign to many children, both in its requirements and expectations. With time and understanding, students enter a self-motivated quest to be the best they can, not to please Whitcomb, but because it becomes important to them.

"What I get the most satisfaction from is when they get hooked," Whitcomb said. "It's not for everyone, but when they stick it out and have some kind of breakthrough, I know their confidence is growing. They realize the only person they are competing with is themselves."

Despite his 6-foot, 4-inch stature and his serious demeanor with his students, Whitcomb said he was always a natural with kids. At the age of 13, a few years after advancing quickly in his Soo Bakh Do training in Colorado, he was asked to help instruct, and found that he loved working with children.

The affection his students have for him is evident—they all light up when he walks into the room.

"Oliver teaches our children respect and discipline," said Grossman, whose son practices with Whitcomb. "He demands respect and excellence from them in his classes, and they in turn have learned to share those same attributes with others."

Gillian Wynn, a mother whose three boys all work with Whitcomb, thinks his influence is even more profound.

"Oliver has been like a father to the boys, especially my oldest son," she said. "He has taught them perseverance, integrity and patience. He is a strong, sober, masculine figure and a really positive role model."

Whitcomb is happy to share his hard-earned wisdom.

"Kids want boundaries and they want discipline," he said. "In the process of finding their own skin, they are testing that, begging for it. And I love it when they test it with me."

Whether they are practicing their kicks, breaking boards with their elbows or learning agility by practicing a fast-paced version of dodgeball, there is always a method to Whitcomb's tactics.

"Human beings are inherently violent," Whitcomb said. "Why martial arts are so cool, especially for little boys who have very violent natures, is they can use it as a tool. If you want to tame a wild animal, you have to set it free."

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