After a Fire, Jump-Starting a Bushwick Dojo

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Hommy Peña had just returned to his home in Glendale, Queens, late one night in March when he received a panicked call.

“You need to get here right away,” Mr. Peña, 43, recalled being told by the superintendent of the building that housed his small business. “Everything is on fire.”

For five years, Mr. Peña had operated Kanku-Dai Zanshin Dojo, a karate school, on DeKalb Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was a modest space that shared the first floor of a wooden rowhouse with a storefront church, but he toiled to make it a community center. Every afternoon, Kanku-Dai was overrun with dozens of neighborhood children, nearly all from working-class Latino families.

Mr. Peña arrived that night to a horrific scene: Electrical combustion that had begun in the rear of the church built to a six-alarm blaze, tearing through five buildings on the block. It took over three hours for more than 200 firefighters to get it under control.

Mr. Peña watched as the flames swallowed his business. “I thought I was in a nightmare,” he said. “Karate is my life, and the dojo was the heart of it.”

Mr. Peña first learned karate as a child to fend off schoolyard bullies. For hours each day, he trained on the sidewalks of his native Santiago, in the Dominican Republic. Martial arts instilled in Mr. Peña a sense of conviction, he said, enabling him to ward off his tormentors and earn some titles.

He continued practicing through adolescence, but when his father died, he largely set karate aside. At a loss for what to do next, Mr. Peña moved to New York.

In the city he found a job at a health insurance company and started a family. Karate became a savored indulgence, squeezed in between work and child rearing. That changed when a friend asked Mr. Peña to oversee an after-school karate program at a church in Bushwick.

“I saw these Hispanic kids all bruised up from practicing on the marble floor and it broke my heart,” he said. “They wanted something better, just like I once did.”

Within months, the number of children studying with Mr. Peña expanded to about 80 from 10, so he moved the program to a more comfortable space on DeKalb Avenue. There, he developed a reputation as a neighborhood mentor, doling out wisdom along with foot sweeps and roundhouse blocks.

“Karate is about discipline and focus,” Mr. Peña said. “These kids have to know self-defense for their own security and confidence.”

The dojo became a refuge for local children and a godsend for their working parents, many of whom could not afford child care. Mr. Peña provided free robes and tried to keep prices down, sometimes entirely waiving fees for families unable to make the $70 monthly payment.

“My kids used to waste hours after school playing video games because I didn’t want them outside alone,” said Laura Jimenez, a cashier who has been bringing her children, Yoskar and Natalie, to Kanku-Dai for two years. “Here, they’ve learned so much about listening and respect.”

When the dojo caught fire, Ms. Jimenez and her children watched on the news in tears. They hardly understood the extent of the destruction: Mr. Peña had no fire insurance, and inside the dojo was expensive training equipment along with $7,000 in cash, all incinerated.

Before the flames even subsided, discussions in the community had begun about how to help. Green Fitness Studio, on nearby Varet Street, offered the group space for about six weeks, while Mr. Peña scoured the area for vacancies. He found one on Central Avenue — a 2,500-square-foot property that allowed for expanded class sizes. The rental deposit nearly wiped out his savings, Mr. Peña said, but he paid it with the help of an online fund-raising campaign.

Most of the equipment came from donations: mats from a dojo in Yonkers; décor from a sensei in Weehawken, N.J.; punching bags from a local supplier; American and Japanese flags from a printing company. Students and their parents gave the walls a fresh coat of paint. In May, Kanku-Dai was open for business once again.

On a recent afternoon, the dojo was teeming with young martial artists preparing for a belt test. In the closest thing to unison that schoolchildren can muster, the class of 30 mirrored Mr. Peña’s gestures, calling out each move in Japanese.

“Before the dojo, lots of these kids were running around after school with no guidance,” said Xiomara Contreras, watching her son, Emilio, 5. “Hommy gives them a role model.”

Before he started attending classes, Emilio was shy and lacked confidence, Ms. Contreras said, but that seems to have changed.

“One day,” Emilio said, glancing at Mr. Peña, “I’m going to be a black belt.”


The Kanku-Dai Zanshin Dojo is at 124 Central Avenue, in Bushwick, Brooklyn. For more information: 718-559-9349;


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