They love coming to their martial arts classes on Saturdays.
“Matt can’t wait to go to karate,” his father Jim Mazza said. “He’s disappointed when he can’t come or if there’s no class that week.”
Matt Mazza, of Smithtown, and Stony Brook resident Jerry Varrichio are both 19 and on the autism spectrum. They began their martial arts journey a decade ago at Long Island Traditional Tae Kwon Do under the leadership of grandmaster Walter Vendura, owner and head instructor of the martial arts studio.
On Saturday, Nov. 21, both Mazza and Varrichio earned their first black belts.
In a three-hour presentation, the two students presented their moves and skills to a small group of family and friends. They’ve been practicing two-to-three times a week, according to Vendura, since they were little kids.
Originally located in East Setauket, Vendura and his team chose to close their doors due to COVID-19 back in March, but that didn’t stop them from continuing the practice of martial arts elsewhere.
During the summer, they began renting out space on the third floor of the Port Jefferson Village Center every Saturday. With masks on and limited in number, the students would continue to learn balance, find strength and break wood planks just as they did before.
Vendura said he has made it his mission to welcome and train individuals of all abilities. Over his 50-year career practicing martial arts, he recently earned his own 8th degree black belt, while also training students at various levels of skills. The instructor has taught people who are blind and deaf, as well as those on the autism spectrum.
“We care about the growth of the student,” Vendura said. “We hope we can encourage them to continue the leadership within themselves, not only in martial arts but in life.”
Both families of the new black belt holders said they originally had trouble finding a studio that was accommodating and welcoming to students with disabilities.
“They understand him,” Jim Mazza said. “It’s not just about the money — they care.”
Kathleen Mazza, Matt’s mother, added that the Tae Kwon Do studio was able to reach her son on an entirely different level.
“They have a unique skill that no one else has,” she said. “They have knowledge, patience and understanding about people on the autism spectrum.”
Josephine Varrichio agreed, saying her son has grown so much during his time practicing martial arts.
“Despite all the obstacles and his disability, we’re so proud of him and how far he has come,” she said. “No one here ever gave up on him.”
And that hard work paid off. With the accomplishment of receiving their first-ever black belts, the two had fun all the way.
“Breaking the board was my favorite,” Matt Mazza said. “I like sidekicks and I like coming to karate.”