The old adage that says never judge a book by its cover is one that can be applied to a martial arts school in Hampden.
Located in the basement of the Hampden Congregational Church, Hampden ATA Martial Arts is unique. In a sport (taekwondo) dominated by male instructors, the school is composed of an entirely female staff.
“As far as I know, we are the only all-female staff in the area,” said 43-year-old Marjorie Earl of Veazie. “We are a franchise of an international organization and (of) all the ones I can think of in our region — which encompasses Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine — I can’t think of any other all-female staff.”
Don’t be fooled by the look of a martial arts school with an all-female staff located in the basement of a church, though, these women can still do the work.
“It doesn’t hurt us being all women,” said 17-year-old Rachel Earl, Marjorie’s daughter and a black belt instructor. “It isn’t any different than a male-run school, it’s just a stigma.”
While the women perform martial arts as well as any man, this isn’t the whole goal at Hampden ATA, which has created in the kitchen of a church a family- and community-based atmosphere that holds classes for students of all types and ages.
“We love it. It is cool that it is all run by women,” said Bangor resident Tom Burby, 49 and a teacher at Brewer Community School. “I think that it makes it very unique and special. They push hard. I often think women are tougher when it comes to endurance than men.”
Burby, whose entire family participates at Hampden, recently joined in the fitness aspect of the school’s training and cites the fact that the instructors lead and compete all of the physical activities they ask of their students, and complete them with ease compared to his efforts as the reasoning for this belief.
“When I found out that the family fee I pay includes this fitness class, my doctor asked me why I wasn’t doing it,” said Burby. “You feel like an idiot when you can’t tell your doctor why, at the age of 49, you aren’t exercising.”
Burby got involved with the school seven years ago when his son, Jim, was awarded a grant for a summer camp by the Libra Foundation and was searching for a camp to take part in.
Jim Burby discovered a camp that taught him the basic fundamentals of Taekwondo, and he became hooked.
When Jim asked his father if he could continue on with the discipline, Tom thought it seemed like a great idea and signed him up for classes in Bangor, where Marjorie Earl taught at the time.
“We started going to a Bangor school and then he (Jim) just kept working,” said Burby. “Mrs. Earl was his teacher from day one and we followed her to Hampden because in martial arts I think it is all about your teacher. You want to find a teacher who pushes you, and she is an amazing teacher.”
Burby said the program has benefited his son in ways he never imagined. He said his son used to be a shy kid, but that the confidence he has gained from his time learning the discipline of the martial arts has bolstered his confidence.
“It’s all about getting that confidence in the child that they can try new things and be successful,” said Earl. “Then they will try new things and be successful.”
Jim Burby pointed out that since joining, he has used the discipline he learned to pick up the guitar and can outplay his dad, and he added that the physical activity hasn’t hurt him at all.
Earl, a former probation officer, started participating in Taekwondo 11 years ago when her kids started taking an interest in the sport and picked it up as a hobby.
Hoping that her children could learn discipline and self-control through the sport, Earl picked it up as a hobby as well and it has stuck ever since.
Earl earned her black belt in two years and worked her way up to the level of instructor. When the owners of the school she co-operated in Bangor decided to go separate ways five years ago, she looked to the town of Hampden to start her own school.
“I had heard great things about Hampden,” said Earl. “The town is very family friendly and this is a family sport.”
Originally located in Hannibal Hamlin Place in the heart of Hampden, the school flourished for its first two years. However, like so many other small businesses in this country, Earl felt the pinch of economic downturn and was forced to find a new building to operate out of.
When a friend recommended that she look into her church because it was seeking to rent out space, Earl discovered a setting that made sense financially and provided the ideal location to create the type of martial arts school she wanted all along.
“Being in a church, for us, has been great because we are so family-friendly,” said Earl. “Kids are sitting here doing their homework while their parents take classes. We have families that have brought dinner in and cooked it in the church oven while others are taking class.”
A family atmosphere that is accepting of all and helps nurture as opposed to dominate is what makes Hampden ATA so unique as there are not many martial arts school where you will find parents sitting around a wood stove knitting and talking with each other while class is in session.
The church has also helped the school plant a sense of community in her students as well. They help keep the grounds clean and haul wood for heat.
“It has helped out the church, too,” said Earl. “They needed the extra income and we need a place. We work together and tend to help them set up tables and chairs for events when they need it, stuff like that.”
The family-oriented setting and more nurturing staff that allows students to learn at their own pace has created a diverse group of students.
Current students range from as young as 2 years old up to 55. Earl added that she has worked with a 70-year-old student, who left her more than impressed.
“We’re looking to better the person,” said Earl. “If we make a great martial artist that is great, but if I make great citizens, that is what I want.”
Having an all-female staff has its advantages as Hampden Martial Arts has happily opened its doors to children with special needs, added Earl.
Taekwondo is considered to be therapeutic for children who have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum and disorders such as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and parents have been recommended to Hampden ATA by doctors in the area due to the all-female staff and their style of teaching.
“For some kids, not every teaching style is conducive for them,” said instructor Michelle Parke, 49, of Bangor. “We help a certain type of kid that may not want to be as rough and tumble as the other martial arts schools are, and for kids that do want that physicality, there may be a school better suited for them.”
Earl, who works with special needs students at Reeds Brook Middle School in Hampden, pointed out that Taekwondo seems to be extremely therapeutic for these children.
“I think it is a great program for children with autism, but it takes the right instructors,” said Earl. “The entire discipline itself is perfect for that population, but other schools may have a more disciplined structure that does not work as well.”
Earl pointed out that the interaction and growth between students on the special needs spectrum and students who are not is one of the biggest perks of the job, as she noticed that eventually students just see each other as the person they are, not a person with or without special needs.
“It’s amazing,” Earl said. “That’s why I do this.”
While learning Taekwondo in a Congregational church basement seems like a unusual match, it is one that Earl and the rest of the staff at Hampden ATA have cherished and made work extremely well.
The members and staff of the school consider each other as part of their extended family and the sport of Taekwondo is what brought them together. It is something that they will have for the rest of their lives.
“This is something that he will have his whole life,” said Burby of his son’s love for Taekwondo. “No matter what happens, he can say ‘I really need to get back to that thing I had as a kid that helped me focus and do well and be a good person.’”