The Education of Master Dong

Teacher Brings Philosophy of Love from Capitol Hill to Syrian Refugee Camps

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He wants it to be about the children. As they take their places for a photograph, Dong Sik Kim, known to children in the District as Master Dong, literally puts the children first. They stand in front of him holding a banner showing a tree with roots deep into the earth, the symbol for his non-profit organization, Home Do.

Dong Kim was born in Ham-Pyung, Jeolla Province, South Korea. When he was seven years old, he started imitating adults that he saw practicing martial arts in the park. By 13 he had received his first black belt in Tae Kwon Do, later achieving a black belt in Gum Do and Kung Fu.

In 1983, Dong came to the United States and settled in Washington DC where he earned a degree in social work from Howard University. He moved to Capitol Hill in 1987, raising a son, and starting a martial arts school called Home Do. Dong taught his own style of martial arts in unconventional locations around Capitol Hill — churches, libraries and parks.

Dong started volunteering his services for the homeless in 1996, after his mother came to visit him from South Korea and planted the idea. “She asked me how such a rich country could have so many poor children, and told me I should be working for them,” he said.

So he developed a not-for-profit program that combined meditation and self-defense exercises and targeted homeless and at-risk youth in the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) and DC General shelters. He later expanded his program to after-school students in DC Public Schools such as Peabody, Maury and John Tyler.

His philosophy for working with and amongst youth is incorporated into the name of his not-for-profit. Dong says that ‘Home’ signifies both the body as the small home and the earth as the big home. ‘Do’ represents living like a tree, tying the body to nature, the small home to the big. Dong hopes the Home Do children will be like the “healthy immune system of society, taking care of others.”

The goal of Home Do is to teach children how to protect themselves, to respect their body and nature, and to help one another. Master Dong does this through a mix of martial arts exercises, meditation, art and gardening. He is assisted by student teachers, mostly teenagers who began the Home Do program as children. The classes are very informal; there is no website or registration. Class days and times are sent out via email to the Home Do community, and parents are encouraged to join their children.

Twelve-year-old Samuel Payne has been working with Home Do since before he was two and now teaches an outdoor class at Northeast Library on Sunday afternoons. Payne’s mother, Laura Takacs, is on the board of the non-profit. “There are lots of things [Samuel] learns from this,” she says. “He sees the greater World, not just this little slice of America.  I want to make sure he cares, and knows he can make a difference in the world.”

Parents say they can see the effect of the lessons when they walk down the street with their children. Tilden Luna’s son is in the Home Do afterschool program at John Tyler Elementary. He “took something complicated and made it really simple,” she says, “to make kids feel safe in their environment.” Luna says she can see the difference in the way her children react to situations. They are more confident in their bodies, and better able to read situations involving other people.

Taking the Program Abroad
In 2015 Dong took his program beyond DC and the United States. He put the Home Do afterschool programs on hold, left the weekend classes in Payne’s capable hands, and travelled to Southern Turkey where he visited a number of Syrian immigrant camps. He says he felt personally touched by the stories of Syrian immigrants, and was moved to help them.

He established two schools based on Home Do teachings in the midst of the unofficial refugee camps. Through the ‘Ali School,’ Home Do provides assistance with milk and diapers for babies, engages younger children through art and teaches them to take care of each other.

“I was not planning to create the school, it just started happening,” Dong says of Ali School. “Most school is one plus one equals two. We teach about how to take care of each other, about love. And it’s working right now.”

Home Do’s second school, called the ‘Street School,’ focuses on older children in the camps and the city. Alongside the school’s principal, a 16-year-old Syrian high school student named Ahmed, students are taught to take care of themselves, their families and younger children.

But Ahmed has had trouble keeping the Syrian children in school. Many children in the refugee camp spend their days collecting trash in the street in order to support themselves or their family.

Their work brings in about $4.50 USD a day, but it keeps them out of school.

Back in DC, Dong and the Capitol Hill Home Do children have begun helping the Syrian children stay in school through fundraising. The money comes from donations, ‘lemonade-standing’, and other initiatives.

One recent Sunday, Payne’s Home Do class, with the assistance of parishioners of Christ Church Washington Parish, Home Do families, and neighbors, held a yard sale and lemonade stand in support of the Ali and Street schools in Turkey. Stoppers-by benefited from good deals and strong lemonade, and the knowledge that the money they spent was going to a good place.

“It sends a message that we care about [the Syrian children],” said Payne, whose Sunday Home Do class participated in the sale. “It’s good for them to feel like someone cares for them and knows that they’re there, and that they’re important.”

Master Dong sees these fund-raising activities as an exercise in love, a way for children of Capitol Hill to act on their love and be linked to their Home Do sisters and brothers on the other side of the planet.

“We can make togetherness,” said Master Dong.

When life gives you lemons….

To get involved with the Capitol Hill Home Do Community, email Laura at laura@bluenoonpress.com.

To learn more about the Home Do schools in Turkey, email Joel at joelspangenberg@hotmail.com.