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Where the kids get their kicks

December 26, 2004

Alicia Robinson

Unlike some girls her age who want to be ballerinas or get ponies,

Serena Miller prefers snakes and karate.

Serena, who is 11, is learning karate now, even though she was

born with a retinal problem that left her blind.

Her classes are at Children's Hospital of Orange County, and her

teacher is Wayne Centra, a Newport Beach occupational therapist who

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uses martial arts to help children kick the lethargy caused by

chemotherapy or fight for the muscle control that's slipping due to

an illness or disability.

Some of Centra's other students are children like 5-year-old Sarah

Grant, an exuberant blond cherub with glasses who made her parents

dye her karate belt pink.

During karate class, Sarah doesn't seem like she's been in and out

of hospitals since she was about a year old because of leukemia.

"He's done incredible with her. She's come so far in the last

year," said Sarah's mother, Wendy Grant, of Huntington Beach.

"A year ago she couldn't even skip."

Getting their fight back

Now Sarah can punch and kick, and so can a number of other

children who meet on padded floor mats every Wednesday in a therapy

room at the hospital.

Centra manages to hold their attention and keep the younger

children from wriggling away, even getting them to do a respectful

bow at the end of the class.

He'll start them with some stretches, helping them as needed, and

move into basic punching moves.

By the end of the class the students get to fall to the mats and

do kicks at an exercise ball, signifying their force with appropriate

noises.

Many of the students have had chemotherapy or debilitating health

problems.

Practicing karate moves helps them keep off excess weight from

their treatments or get control of their wayward muscles.

"[Centra's] work has really helped patients regain their strength

and get normalcy to their life," said pediatric oncologist Dr. Violet

Shen.

"I've heard a lot of great feedback from the parents. They really

appreciate his work with their kids."

Change of pace

At one time, hospital karate instructor was not a likely scenario

for Centra.

He's now 34, when he was younger he was captain of the surf team

at Corona del Mar High School and wanted to go professional.

But before that, when he was 11, his mom drove him to a karate

school one day and dropped him off.

"I went in, spent two or three hours, and by the time I left I

loved it," Centra said.

"I guess what my mom was trying to teach me is there's other

things out there than surfing."

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