A Fighting Chance

Before 15-year-old Gabrielle Allen of Gloversville started training at Pazzaglia’s American Kenpo Karate in Johnstown a few years ago, she was having issues with a bully at Gloversville High School.

Bullying was one of the main reasons that Allen and her step-siblings, Jasmine Rousseau, 14, and Lilly Rousseau, 8, signed up for karate lessons at Pazzaglia’s, according to Allen’s stepmother and the Rousseaus’ mother, Traci Rousseau. Since her daughters and stepdaughter began karate, Rousseau has noticed a number of positive changes, most notably in the girls’ self-confidence.

“I remember that Gabby was having a problem with a girl in school,” Rousseau said. “This girl … was bullying her, and went to smack her, and she was able to defend herself. She really stood up for herself, and she’s never done that before. It’s just been amazing how she is able to stand up for herself – she has the confidence now to say, ‘You’re not gonna mess with me,’ and [the girl] hasn’t since.”

Matthew Reichel, 8, of Amsterdam, has studied at American Zen-Do Kai Martial Arts in Johnstown for three years, and is about to begin training in the advanced class. For Reichel, too, bullying was a big reason to start learning karate.

“I’d been picked on a few times as a kid, and it seemed if I didn’t so something about it soon I’d end up getting hurt,” Reichel said. “Because if you get picked on as a kid, that’s a big sign that you should do karate for self-defense. It will help you so you won’t get hurt when you get older; you’ll know how to defend yourself.”

American Zen-Do Kai Martial Arts has a long history in Johnstown. Michael Campos founded the business, located at 490 N. Perry St., in 1974, but he began teaching karate at Fulton-Montgomery Community College in 1969.

“At that point in time it was primarily adults and high school-age students, mostly males, [in the classes],” Campos said. “In the interim, what’s happened is it’s become very popular with younger students and parents who appreciate the fact that martial arts can help students to focus, gain self-confidence and learn new skills.”

Campos, now 69, also is the founder of American Zen-Do Kai Martial Arts’ underlying organization, Zen-Do Kai Martial Arts International, not to be confused with the Zen Do Kai style that originated in Australia in 1970. According to Campos’ website, zdkusa.com, the Zen-Do Kai Martial Arts International system draws from a number of martial arts styles, mainly Japanese Shotokan karate, but also kenpo, judo and jujitsu.

In 2004 Campos turned over day-to-day operations at American Zen-Do Kai to husband-and-wife Robert and Bonnie Streeter, although he continues to teach at the dojo and travel to Zen-Do Kai seminars and events.

“We have a number [of affiliated dojos] in New York state, Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania,” Campos said. “We have Canadian affiliate, and I’ve taught in Greece and Peru and in New Zealand during my career.”

Robert Streeter has been with American Zen-Do Kai since the early 1980s. Prior to studying with Campos, Streeter earned his black belt in Shaolin Kenpo Karate, but the Chinese-influenced style didn’t suit him.

“Shaolin Kenpo is pretty circular, and my Kenpo instructor said that I move too much like the Japanese style,” Streeter said. “So I moved to the Japanese style; it was a better fit for how I move and do things.”

Today, American Zen-Do Kai has somewhere between 50 and 60 students ranging in age from 5 to over 50, Streeter said. Streeter has noticed an increase in the number of females joining both the adult and children’s classes, although males still outnumber females at the dojo.

“Through the years, we’ve had a number of students – some of the female students in particular – we’ve had a couple of them that unfortunately got attacked,” Streeter said. “But they were successful in getting out of the situation without injury, so that worked out well. [Self-defense is] mainly the first reason people come. A lot try it as a way of staying in shape. A lot of people aren’t really interested in lifting weights or other exercise-type programs, so they come to us for that.”

Joe Pazzaglia, founder of Pazzaglia’s American Kenpo Karate, formerly Martial Arts & Me, and another former Campos student, branched out from the American Zen-Do Kai in 2005. His dojo, which focuses on the American Kenpo style derived from traditional Japanese and Chinese karate, emphasizes self-defense and community, especially for its younger members. The dojo runs two after-school programs – an anti-bullying program called Zero Tolerance and a child abduction prevention program – and buses kids in from Gloversville and Johnstown schools for them.

“Obviously, the economy is poor; when the economy’s poor there tends to be an increase in crimes,” Pazzaglia said. “This area in particular, I’m born and raised here, and in spite of what I think people may hear – and they may not always be made privy to – I think there’s been a dramatic increase in crimes, not only just misdemeanor crimes. I’m talking the more serious crimes, such as home invasions, robberies, assaults, attempted abductions. All those things just seem to be on an increase nationwide, but I’ve noticed in particular in this area as well. So I get a lot of people coming to me for those reasons.”

Pazzaglia has also seen his dojo grow thanks to martial arts’ increasing profile in movies and other media, including Ultimate Fighting Championship.

“There’s a lot of negatives that come along with that too, [with] the trash talking, the lack of – a lot of times you’ll see that there’s a lack of respect, sportsmanship,” Pazzaglia said. “And to me, those aren’t the foundations upon which martial arts were built. We’ve always been told that it’s all about having compassion and helping people, not necessarily hurting them.”

Mark Kilmer, president of the Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce, has taught karate at the Fulton County YMCA since the early ’80s. His students have come for self-defense, fitness and the sport’s calming effect, he said.

“It’s a balancing art, it really is,” Kilmer said. “Even for adults, it can take a less-outgoing person and make them a little bit more outgoing.”