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Karate class combines martial arts and gardening

Teens take a break from practicing karate moves to tend to an urban garden.

By David RunkAssociated Press Writer / September 11, 2009

Students practice karate moves at the Harvesting Earth Educational Farm in Genesee Township, Mich. After teaching karate classes, Jacky King and his wife, teach lessons on farming.

Carlos Osorio/AP

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GENESEE TOWNSHIP, Mich.

Teenagers in matching green T-shirts line up holding rakes and shovels, and take a karate stance.They've spent the day tending to neat rows of vegetables and feeding dozens of chickens. Others dug trenches for an irrigation system or hammered together a pen for goats, on a lot just outside the blighted city of Flint, Mich., that only three years ago was a dumping ground.

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Getting young people involved in converting vacant urban spaces to grow food is a key part of neighborhood redevelopment efforts across the country. At the farm in Genesee Township, Jacky and Dora King have taken it a step further — pairing farming and karate to teach similar lessons.

"Discipline, respect and not taking people for granted," says Kyle Tyler, an 18-year-old from Flint Township who has trained at King Karate for three years. "It's a good mixture, because it teaches you things from both sides."

The Kings bought the land for Harvesting Earth Educational Farm in 2006. This summer, their workforce ballooned to about 45 young people, and they're clearing other lots, acquiring vacant homes and laying plans for an orchard on a nearby 30-acre plot.

"It's just a piece of our self-defense," says Dora King, a sixth-degree black belt. "If I'm lucky enough, I might be able to go through my whole life not having to kick or punch in a self-defense situation. But I always have to eat."

The Kings live and work on the edge of Flint, where families have suffered as the number of people who work for General Motors has dwindled from more than 89,000 to about 6,000. Their school and home are in neighboring Mount Morris Township, across a street from the farm.

For the Kings, farming in the neighborhood is part of the solution — bringing both employment and an economic opportunity.

"I'm not in this for gardening," says Jacky King, an eighth-degree black belt. "I'm in this for jobs for the kids."

Workers are paid through partnerships with several community organizations, including the Ruth Mott Foundation and Baker College. The Kings offer free karate instruction to their workers, and about 50 karate students put in volunteer time.

"They start seeing how it's possible to turn ugly into beautiful," Dora King says.

Sixteen-year-old Shaquita Morris says incorporating karate training with her summer job helps her fellow teens work better together.