Couple gets kick out of taking Vero Beach Karate to new level

PHOTO BY JOSHUA KODIS

Jason and Shannon Wesley have picked up the gauntlet at Vero Beach Karate Association, founded in 1971, after the 2020 passing of VBKA founder William Willis, who had attained the rank of 10th Degree Black Belt in Sanuces Ryu Jiu-Jitsu and the title of Grand Master.

Willis already had two decades under his belt before Jason, now a 5th Degree Black Belt, and wife Shannon, a 4th Degree Black Belt, began taking karate lessons at the VBKA dojo as youngsters. They have continued to pursue it as considerably more than just a hobby.

The two are natives of Vero Beach and even while attending the University of Florida, they returned on weekends and holidays to help teach classes.

Shannon chuckles as she recalls that she was drawn to karate by her cousins, who used her for practice. Her family was so enamored of her growth in the sport that her parents enrolled too.

“So, we were a karate family. It was really fun to train with them and test together,” she says.

Jason tells the younger students that his interest in the martial arts was first sparked by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; in reality, he says that it was his parents who signed him up to “toughen me up.”

“Little did they know what kind of effect it would have on my life, not just in my upbringing and formidable years, but that it would become my career,” says Jason.

“Karate is so much more than kicking and punching. We like to make sure we teach our kids how to take a punch and defend themselves should the need arise, but we have three core values: self-defense, fitness and personal development,” he says.

“Great care and attention have been given to each of the core values, so that while our students are perfecting their martial arts skills, they are also developing and perfecting all the areas of their lives. We not only want our students to be proficient martial artists, we also want them to be polite ladies and gentlemen with good character,” Jason explains.

Shannon recalls that Willis even required teenage students to participate in mock dating classes, commenting: “He would pull his car up and have us all take turns, with the gentlemen holding the door for the ladies.”

The Vero Beach Karate Association has served the community for 51 years, so it comes as no surprise that they are now teaching a third generation in the martial arts. Additionally, the school has produced more than 500 Black Belts.

Jason says they get to see the students, who range in age from 5 to 65, grow up as they return year after year.

“We get to see the transformations they make,” adds Shannon.

To continue Willis’ legacy, the couple relocated the dojo to a new location where they can expand services. In April, VBKA held a grand opening for the dojo, now located in the warehouse on 29th Street, where the United Against Poverty Member Share Grocery Center previously resided.

With three training rooms and a nearly complete fitness room, where parents can work out while their children are attending classes, VBKA offers a variety of class options based on age and skill level. They currently offer Karate, Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, Tai Chi, Weapons Training, Summer and Holiday camps, and have plans to roll out an afterschool program this fall.

The Summer Camp program holds a special place in Shannon’s heart, as it’s where she and Jason first met, although Jason says it wasn’t until several years later that a “courtship” began.

Their goal, says Jason, is to provide a high-quality program that will equip people with effective self-defense skills should they need them, to advance the merits of life-long fitness through the martial arts, and to enhance people’s lives through worthwhile personal development programs, all within a wholesome, family-oriented environment.

“We like to know we played at least a small part in their development and to help make them people ready for the real world, when they go off to college and beyond,” says Jason, adding that they build a foundation based on respect and discipline.

“We pride ourselves on students leaving here being able to defend themselves. One of the things that drew me was the confidence that you get from the martial arts,” says Shannon, noting that confidence applies equally with adults as well as children. It is also a good foundation for the coordination and strength needed to participate in other sports.

Jason stresses that while adults tend to prioritize their family responsibilities over themselves, they will see amazing results if they can just commit to two hours a week.

One of the things Willis “poured into us,” shares Shannon was that “we should be pouring into other people, too. That’s what gave us the passion to continue in martial arts.”

Building on community partnerships, VBKA has facilitated workshops on anti-bullying, focus and goal-setting.

“As part of our Personal Development core value, we encourage charitable giving and have helped fundraise over $250,000 for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and $50,000 for the American Cancer Society,” says Jason.

Willis, who valued education, had also created the United States Karate and Jiu Jitsu Scholarship Fund, a 501(c)3 not-for-profit that has distributed $300,000 in scholarships for college-bound VBKA High School Senior Black Belts, all through volunteer fundraising efforts.

Precursors to the scholarships, says Jason, are their Academic Achiever Program and Student Excellence Awards. Students earn patches for earning As and Bs in school and build a resume of their academic excellence and community involvement, which can earn them $100 and their name on a plaque at the dojo.

While VBKA isn’t a tournament-heavy program, they do value the idea of competition with other family-oriented schools, Jason says, because it teaches how to lose as well as how to win.
“There are sometimes in life that you don’t win. There’s definitely a grace that you learn when you lose,” he explains.

For more information, visit VBKA.com.

Photos by Joshua Kodis

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