For Derek Spencer, a local Army veteran and fourth degree black belt in karate, giving back to the community comes as second nature.
After nearly five years in the Army and two tours in Iraq, Spencer now volunteers at Turlock's Salvation Army, offering free karate classes for people of all ages. The classes are held 6 to 7 p.m. Monday nights from in the Salvation Army’s gymnasium at 893 Lander Ave.
“He just moved here a little while ago, and he wanted to give back to the community, so he decided to ask us if we’d be willing to have him,” said Major Debi Shrum, head of Turlock's Salvation Army. “We did a background check and all of those things came out clear so we said yes.”
When asked how many they’ve held so far, Shrum admitted with a giggle, “we’ve only had two.”
But the success of the program is no joke, as Shrum said that around 25 people have showed up at each class so far.
“It’s open to everybody, it’s free,” she said. “All ages are welcome.”
Shrum also said that, although about two-thirds of participants have been children, several adults have participated as well. Even more parents attend, encouraging their children from the sidelines.
Spencer is also happy with the program’s success so far. After moving with his wife, China, to the Turlock-Denair area, Spencer said he saw a need for such a class.
“I noticed that there wasn’t a free karate program for people who couldn’t afford it. So I went to the Salvation Army and told them, ‘Hey I’d love to teach a free karate class no strings attached,’ just to try to help out the youth of Turlock.”
Spencer began learning karate through a free program at the Boys and Girls Club of Manteca, where he later went on to instruct for almost 11 years.
“When I was a kid we didn’t have any money at all, so it was just a great program that kept me off the streets so I just kind of wanted to give back to the community.”
Spencer knows that, for a lot of kids, programs like these are essential to keeping on the right track.
“I know how much good it does, and, you know, not everyone has the money to pay for all those karate lessons because it’s expensive,” Spencer said. “I took free classes all the way up until I made my black belt, and then I joined the military, and then I trained with a couple of different martial arts instructors.”
Coming back to his hometown of Manteca after his two tours, Spencer was happy to return to the place that had taught him from the beginning. His instructor, Robin Taberna, continues to teach today.
“When I came back from the military I went back to my original karate instructor until I made my fourth degree black belt.”
As for what brought him to Turlock, Spencer explained that he was recently finishing up his Bachelor’s degree at California State University, Stanislaus in U.S. History, and that his wife is currently finishing her education there as well.
“I was retired early because I actually got blown up by roadside bombs several times when I was in combat, and so Uncle Sam said, ‘Okay no more of that you’re retired,’” Spencer said of his time in Iraq.
“So basically I have my military retirement, and so I had all this extra time, and I had the G.I. bill and I was like, 'Well, I might as well go to school and find the subject that I like a lot,' and I found that my education has helped quite a bit as far as being a good martial arts teacher.”
Spencer decided to approach the Salvation Army about teaching a karate class after realizing there is no Boys and Girls Club in Turlock, and that other local karate classes can be quite expensive.
“I was really disappointed that people were spending an arm and a leg for martial art classes, and these poor parents were getting locked into these contracts and their kids were going there more to play in like, a daycare, as opposed to learning real martial arts and learn all the discipline and everything else that goes along with it,” Spencer said.
“So I was like, ‘You know what? Let’s just do a free program and give the City of Turlock another option, and let them learn the right way and we’ll see what happens.'”
It took six months of hard work to make Spencer's Salvation Army classes a reality. But dedication is something that comes easy to Spencer, especially knowing the impact youth martial arts classes can have.
“I’ve been very lucky– but I feel even luckier knowing that I get to teach karate to a whole new generation, and they’re getting out of it what I got out of it when I was younger,” Spencer said.
The free class is held from 6 to 7 p.m. Mondays in the Turlock Salvation Army’s gymnasium, 893 Lander Ave.