Using the martial arts as a means to promote local charities and community events is a common practice. But Texan Jonathan Potter travels all the way to Ghana in West Africa to do so. Working with a handful of impoverished students, orphans and widows in two African townships, Potter uses taekwondo as a catalyst to motivate them to overcome life’s daily hardships.
onathan Potter and the Combat Demo Team are black belt globetrotters performing around the nation and the world using an exciting array of taekwondo kicks and board-breaking techniques to wow spectators. “The Combat Demo Team is an evangelical Christian martial arts demonstration team founded by Brian Bryan,” explains Potter. “Prior to Ghana, they had been to over 30 countries. I joined them in 2006. “Throughout the show, each team member shares a positive message with the audience, stating that lives can be changed if you reach out to help those in need.” When a call for help showed up on the team’s Facebook page from Reverend Stephen Acquah, who runs a school for impoverished children in Ghana in West Africa, Potter and the Combat Team responded. They agreed to extend a helping hand in one of the poorest areas in the world. “Prior to October 2012, I was traveling to a lot of di¡erent countries. However, after that, all my trips have been to Ghana,” Potter explains. “To date, I’ve gone to Ghana three to four times a year. This last March I was there for four weeks.” Since joining in 2006, Potter rose in the ranks to become Team Leader, Director of African Relations, and today is the International [Taekwondo] School Director. USING FLASHLIGHTS FOR ELECTRICITY! A t his state-of-the-art school, USA Martial Arts Academy in Prosper, TX, Potter’s students have nice mats to land on, plenty of bags to kick, and a variety of training tools to use, depending on which art they are studying. These amenities allow Potter the option to teach taekwondo, jiu-jitsu, judo or muay thai, all of which are part of his school’s curriculum. When he first arrived in Ghana to put on two live demonstrations, however, both venues presented distinctive problems. “The conditions in Ghana are always a challenge,” Potter says. “We did shows in two locations, each presenting a [di¡erent] challenge. At Perfect Love Chapel (PLC), the electricity was always an issue. Several times, I had to set up flashlights against the wall just so we could see what we were doing. “The building’s floor was a cement slab covered in dust; in fact, that’s the reason we chose to wear black uniforms,” recalls Potter. “Of course, there were no mats to fall on, so it was an easy call to decide to [use only] taekwondo.” The building was small, too, with several pillars the team had to work around. Desks and furniture had to be moved to make room for the demonstration. Frequently, the electricity would just stop working. Those were all minor obstacles to this dedicated team of martial artists as they prepared to put on a show that the school kids would never forget.
BETTER THAN THE WORLD CUP M any of the kids in the school that day had seen some martial arts in movies and on TV, but they’d never seen a live demonstration. For them, it was like having a front-row seat at the World Cup Championships as the Combat Demo Team flew into action just a few feet away from the wide-eyed youngsters. After the demo, the school was filled with converts. They all wanted to learn taekwondo. This was the encouragement Potter needed to move forward with a plan to open a real taekwondo school in Ghana. “Once we decided to open a school, I took three weeks o¡ over Christmas break to go back to Ghana,” he explains. “I trained a local by the name of Christian Ashong the basics, so he could begin teaching in my absence.” In addition to the school in Kumasi, Ghana, Potter also worked with the Perfect Love Chapel, a church that assists widows and orphans in nearby Accra. Potter took special notice of one little girl who was nearly blind. He soon realized few, if any, of the residents in the chapel and the schoolhouse had ever recieved an eye exam. So, another task was added to his Ghana “bucket list.” Potter was determined to find a way to get medical assistance to his charges in Ghana.
I n 2013, Potter teamed up with Harvest International. Loaded with medical supplies, they worked with local doctors to provide much needed care for the children. “For the people at the school and surrounding community we provided free scans, free eye exams and free medication,” Potter says. “We gave a lot of the kids glasses. Before that, they just couldn’t see very well.” Without any sponsors to support Potter’s numerous outreach programs in Ghana, donations are extremely important. Century stepped in when the company heard about Potter’s taekwondo venture. “The students barely have money for food, let alone martial art uniforms and belts. But thanks to Century, we had belts to award to the students,” Potter says. “You should have seen the excitement in their eyes when they saw those belts and uniforms.” “We were preparing to award a few belts that came from America, all nicely wrapped in plastic from Century,” Potter adds. “So we unwrapped the belts and tossed the wrappers in the trash without thinking twice. To us, there was nothing else we could use it for so we just threw it away.” Potter quickly noticed that nothing goes to waste in Ghana. “The kids collected the plastic and rewrapped their belts,” Potter says. “Here in the States, we wouldn’t even think of doing that. But over there, it’s important for them to protect the few possessions they may own.” Although the Government of Ghana hasn’t rolled out the red carpet for the team, they have acknowledged Potter’s e¡orts by awarding him with a Non-Government Organization (NGO) document. This makes it much easier for Potter to import martial arts belts, uniforms and equipment to the country. “The NGO is an important document because it means the country recognizes us as an ocial non-profit organization,” Potter explains.
WINNING HEARTS AND MINDS WITH TAEKWONDO J onathan Potter explains that teaching martial arts in Africa is a world apart from teaching it here in the United States. There, the students have very little to begin with. So, they express their appreciation with open arms and huge smiles for everything that Potter and his team does for them. “The school is, of course, nothing like we have here in the States, either, Potter says. In the beginning, there were no mats, we worked on a very dirty cement floor, and it was so hot our uniforms were soaking wet in minutes.” “Even if we could open a full-time school in Ghana, the kids couldn’t a¡ord to go there,” explains Potter. “For us, it’s so gratifying just to see how eager they are to learn. They are far more appreciative of it than a lot of kids here in America. They appreciate it more because they have so little.” With a martial arts school on just about every block in every city in the United States today, quality instruction and state-of-the-art training centers are easily available. “Here in America you can go around the corner and do martial arts or play football or basketball. You name it and it’s available here,” Potter says. “For soccer balls over there, they will tie a bunch of rags together into the semblance of a ball and use that to play with!” “[Even] when we first arrived in Ghana [in October 2012] to present our first public martial arts demonstration, the kids were very excited,” he says. “We made them part of the show. We did flying sidekicks over them, and when I demonstrated the bo sta¡ I’d stop it just above one of their heads.” The kids were in total awe of the flying guys in the black uniforms as they twisted in midair throwing the kind of kicks the youngsters had only seen in the movies. “Afterwards, they scrambled to grab the boards we’d broken. Even the shyest student was wide-eyed. They all wanted to be taekwondo experts just like the demo team. So, when we told them that we were coming back and opening a school, they were even more excited.” “It gives the team and me great joy and a sense of personal satisfaction to use our martial arts training to help bring some happiness into their lives,” Potter says.
MAT CHATS CREATE A CIRCLE OF COMMUNICATION S o what can taekwondo lessons do to improve the lives of kids who barely have food to eat? “What we brought to the kids in Ghana was an outlet; it gave them an alternative,” explains Potter. “That’s because the martial arts isn’t just about being physical. It’s also a mental discipline that helps a person to better him or herself.” This martial arts mindset begins with a round-robin mat chat. Even with just a dusty cement floor to sit on, the communication and community these talks provide is still incredibly important. Mats or no mats, the idea works just fine. The Mat Chat forum provides the kids and the Combat Team a chance to get to know each other on a personal level. “The Mat Chat is [also] something we do at our school in Texas,” Potter says. “This way, we get a better understanding of the problems the kids face and that helps us figure out how to help them.” “What we brought to the kids in Ghana was an outlet; it gave them an alternative. That’s because the martial arts isn’t just about being physical. It’s also a mental discipline that helps a person to better him or herself.”
IT MIGHT NOT REPLACE SOCCER, BUT IT’S A START W ith each trip to Ghana, Potter breaks new ground, expanding his e¡orts to reach out to the locals using taekwondo as his calling card. “This last trip, I spent most of my time training P.E. [physical education] teachers to get ready to start teaching taekwondo in September,” Potter says. “What we want to start doing is set up some tournaments between these schools. That way, we can begin raising awareness of the martial arts in Ghana. “Soccer is the big sport in Ghana. But, with the people’s love of sports and their competitive nature, I think taekwondo tournaments will be a hit,” he says. Potter is looking for pen pals in the states for his Ghanaian students. He’s also seeking groups or organizations to sponsor a child. That money, he says, will go directly to the Ghana mission. “We all pay our own way,” says Potter of himself and his colleagues. “Each person on the team spends about $3,000 per trip for transportation, food and lodging. “For 2015, I’m planning six trips, if funding is available,” he adds. “Four to Ghana, Africa, and two to Belize in Central America.” For a gold-hearted humanitarian like Jonathan Potter, all his hard work, exhaustive travel and out-of-pocket expense is paid o¡ by a simple reward. “For me, its all about one thing,” he says. “When I teach these kids, I want to see them smiling.” e m Terry Wilson is an Emmy Award-winning TV host/producer and lifelong student of the martial arts. He’s based in San Diego, CA and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. a To read about many other acts of charity and local community philanthropy in our field, visit the Martial Arts Industry Association’s website at www.masuccess.com. Through this constantly-enhanced website, members can access a massive amount of useful information on just about any topic from A to Z.