Pooler Karate… Martial Arts and Special Needs Children

9 min read
How one martial arts GYM decided to make a difference for special needs children and impact their community one class at a time

Pooler Karate… Martial Arts and Special Needs Children

How one martial arts GYM decided to make a difference for special needs children and impact their community one class at a time

Interviewee: Carson Fortner

Location: Pooler, Georgia

Photos By: Duncan Graham

We had the pleasure of interviewing a very successful martial arts GYM owner, Carson Fortner, the other day in Pooler, Georgia. His facility is top-notch; they offer multiple programs, including Jiu-Jitsu, Karate, Krav Maga, weapons training, and more. Their family/inclusive environment is exceptional! In Carson’s interview, he explained how it all began, the challenges he faced along the way, the WHY behind what he does, and how they impact the special needs community through martial arts.  


Carson started martial arts when he was six and, funny enough, says, “We talk about this all the time; I don’t even remember my original instructor ever talking about what martial art we trained; I’m just assuming it was Taekwondo,” Carson laughed. He grew up in a small town called Sylvania, Georgia, and broke his first board in 1994 that said, “don’t do drugs”… “How ’90s is that” he said with a grin.  

One day, however, things took an abrupt turn! “I remember going to school one day and the entire facility being cleaned out. Everything gone, no heads up, or nothing.” His instructor just simply walked out on him, which ignited something in him to give back to his community and to offer kids a place to train where their instructor would never walk out on them.

“I’ve always played sports my whole life, football, baseball, ran track, and when I was probably 14, we moved to Statesboro, a small town close by and, you know, you’ve been playing sports your whole life in one area, and when I moved to this other town they were rivals. To be honest, I never quit anything in my life; I always worked hard on sticking with one job, don’t quit, you know… it’s normal stuff with learning and teaching martial arts, and I think I got it from my dad.”

He continued by saying, “I had this coach tell me that he was gonna run me until my heart blew up all because he didn’t like the way I put up a weight or something like that… he was pissed off. So, I said, you know what, I’ll clean my locker out, I’m done, and I left. I then went to a local karate school, and man, it just sort of went crazy from there.” Carson, at this time, upped his training, got his green belt in Karate, and started teaching classes himself regularly. 

Then, when speaking about Jiu-Jitsu: “Jiu-Jitsu was not really popular like it is now, you know, it was like every time we had a class we always wanted to end with ‘let’s grapple’! You know, we just called it grappling, so every evening at the end of class we always wanted to grapple to see who the biggest guy in the GYM was… for a teenager, that was always fun.”

After graduating college with a natural and cultural resource management degree with a minor in finance, he had a choice to make. He said, “It was either get a real job or open a martial arts school. So, I had always heard about everybody saying this place called Pooler was blowing up, it was one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., and so I said OK, I’m gonna try it out.” 

He completed his internship at the same Karate school he was working at and then shortly after opened his facility with a small business loan of $30,000 with zero students. Within the first year, he had over 100 students and paid off his entire loan. Currently, they have well over 500 students and have produced multiple black belts.

Building it UP

Pooler Karate’s success was not without its challenges though. Carson explained that he never planned to run his Krav Maga or Jiu-Jitsu programs. “I never do anything unless I have a solid background, didn’t want to be, as they say, a McDojo.” So, to ensure the quality of his programs, he hired some of the best instructors he could find. However, at the height of 12-15 Krav classes, his instructor left and started his own program. The same followed with Jiu-Jitsu for several years; actually, 4 instructors in Jiu-Jitsu, to be exact, with reasons ranging from leaving and trying to start their own programs, if you’re a GYM owner you can relate all too well, to chasing women, to COVID.   

At the start of this ordeal, he remembered back when his heart was broken by his instructor when he was only six and made the decision right there and said, “I’m never doing that to a kid ever again, I’ll never do that again.” So, he began his Jiu-Jitsu and Krav Maga instructor journeys so that no kid, or adult for that matter, at his school would ever have to face an entire program being canceled on them like he  had. This was a  remarkable decision and set of skills that took years to perfect… he genuinely stepped up to the plate!

To date, his background is primarily in traditional martial arts, but he is very well versed in Jiu-Jitsu! He is a fifth-degree black belt in American Tang Soo Do, 2nd degree Black Belt in Krav Maga, and a Brown Belt under Sergio Machado in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu! He has been with instructor Sergio for over 6 years now, and the program is flourishing! They currently offer 12 Jiu-Jitsu classes, 12-15 Krav Maga classes, and 20-30 Karate classes per week! Furthermore, his Karate program is under Master Mark Cox, with both of them being under Chuck Norris, Pat Johnson and Dennis Ichikawa. 

Your Eco-System Martial Arts

We asked Carson what he thinks about Jiu-Jitsu and traditional martial arts being in the same GYM; he had this to say:

“Jiu-Jitsu is a little bit separate in that the culture is different, you know. It’s just different than traditional martial arts… You know I’ve never been in anything where you don’t have manuals or a lot of organization… you have ‘this is how it’s going to be, and this is what you gotta do to get it’ in traditional martial arts. Jiu-Jitsu is not like that; I will never forget the first time my instructor taught me how to tie my Jiu-Jitsu belt. He said, ‘well before you take it off, throw it behind your back,’ my traditional martial arts mindset was saying, WHAT, you want me to throw my belt, haha! It’s just different, and the good thing about it is we haven’t had any issues with people not getting along and now like everybody’s sort of one big family. I’d say that my traditional martial arts programs have improved immensely because I take my Krav self-defense and put it in my traditional martial arts program because that’s what Krav is known for right, and now I’m starting to take takedowns and basic Jiu-Jitsu and put that into my Karate program too.”

It’s wonderful to hear and see firsthand how Jiu-Jitsu has made very positive waves at Pooler Karate and is even aiding his traditional martial arts programs.  

Special Kicks Program

Carson shared that, “My heart has always been in traditional martial arts, and I think the biggest thing my heart is turning toward now is teaching kids.” 

Specifically, he has a passion for teaching and helping special needs children. Carson shared a little bit on how he got started in this endeavor and how it grew:

“So, I had a kid that I was teaching who had a little sister who was partially blind, she couldn’t walk, and she couldn’t talk. I was training the kid one day, and the mom said, ‘Hey, you wanna start working with my daughter too?’ I eventually ended up getting her to walk for the very first time, and I got her to sort of start talking for the very first time too. So man, it really, really hit me, like I can make a real influence on these kids’ lives with special needs!”

With this life-changing experience, Carson developed a special needs program which he calls “Special Kicks.” It was not an easy road but one so rewarding, as he described, that he wouldn’t change a thing!

At first, he tried to do a class with any age, any disability, or what he calls an “ability” so that they could all learn as one class. Rather quickly, however, he learned that was not the way to go. He began doing privates and small group classes and then met an amazing young man named Austin.

“I was at a restaurant that was close to the school, and there was a kid named Austin; he was eating pizza with his dad… Austin had down syndrome, and I said, ‘Hey man, would you be interested in bringing your son to me, and I’ll teach him Karate free of charge… I just wanna work with him, and I think it will be great. And so, he started coming every week, and we started doing an abridged program, and then he (Austin) blew through that pretty fast. We moved him up in the junior program, and now he actually has a second-degree black belt under me.”

Through this time of teaching and seeing firsthand what worked, he developed his special needs curriculum and robust teaching system. He was eventually contacted by an organization called B&B Care. They explained how much they loved their work and offered to send them state-funded students and fund the students Carson and his team could bring in. From there, the program exploded to the point of having 75+ kids just in their special needs program, which includes Jiu-Jitsu and Karate. Additionally, they found other organizations, both in and out of state, to help with the demand.

Carson added by saying, “I’ve been so blessed to be able to communicate with these kids through, honestly, just treating them with kindness… just being there for them and not running away when something gets a little hard. One thing I can tell you is that these parents are so used to their kids being the quote-unquote ‘different kids’, and people looking at them differently and making them feel different, and then they don’t feel comfortable in certain places… screaming and crying doesn’t bother me. I’ve had a lot of kids that everybody else turned away.”

“Some kids have been with me for like 7 or 8 years now. One very cool thing is that most kids usually do martial arts for just a little bit, and then they’re gone and go play like baseball or soccer; it just is what it is. But these kids, when they commit to something, that is their routine, and once that is set, it’s not going to change. They don’t want change for the rest of their life; so, you’re talking about a lifelong student; it’s so cool.”

They now do integrated classes with traditional classes for the more advanced special needs kids as well as private classes for the ones  who need more attention. Their goal is to continuously integrate every special needs kid they can. To help do so, they also developed a special suit where the instructor can strap in the child to them so, for example, for paraplegic kids, the instructors can punch and kick for them; the kids love it!  

Additionally, they also do special needs summer camps, wild game fundraisers and are heavily involved with other organizations such as Night of Champions, which is an adult’s special needs work program event. Carson and his team were honored at the event one year, and also themselves hire special needs adults in their community to work in their GYM…. their commitment is truly off the charts!  

At the end of our interview, Carson had this to say about people looking to start a special needs program in their GYM:

“You talk about legacy, you talk about that, like that’s one of the biggest things I’ve ever done in my life, man. It’s very important to me that it carries all past me and to my kids who are teaching for me now and so on and so forth. I could show any school how to do this same thing… I started this for free, you know man, I had a heart for it; if you don’t have a heart for it to start with, this thing is not for you. I didn’t start doing it because I was trying to make a lot of money; I started doing it because I wanted to help families out. I wanted to have the experience for those kids, and then it turned in, well God turned it into more and more, and it continues just to keep growing every year!”

Carson continued with, “So if you’re thinking, I’m gonna make a lot of money, you’re not doing it for the right reasons. You know Jiu-Jitsu schools especially! I have a little girl in my Jiu-Jitsu class with cerebral palsy, has a bunch of seizures, and this is one of the only sports she can do because if she has a seizure, she’s hitting the mat and can’t hurt herself. I believe programs like this could change, I mean literally, change the United states…. if all the martial arts schools in the world just took in 10 students with special needs, what amazing benefits we all could have from it!” 

Carson and his team at Pooler Karate are truly exceptional. They keep growing and growing year after year, add new and innovative programs, and positively have a hunger to help people! If you want to see all of this in action, which I highly recommend that you do, please go and check them out on our affiliate list and schedule a class.

Affiliate Page: https://bbmjiujitsu.com/gyms/




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