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Students get a kick out of Project Future

by Olivia

Heisner's martial arts program celebrates 20th anniversary

Thu, Apr 7th 2011 04:00 pm
Some of the martial arts students and teachers are shown at Project Future on a Tuesday evening training session. The Rev. Robert Heisner, director, is in the back row, third from left.
Some of the martial arts students and teachers are shown at Project Future on a Tuesday evening training session. The Rev. Robert Heisner, director, is in the back row, third from left.
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About 50 young people and more than 20 adults will be making a public statement of their beliefs as well as raising funds at the Project Future Kick-a-thon Against Drugs and Violence this Saturday.

The event begins at 10 a.m. at Niagara Catholic High School, 520 66th St., Niagara Falls.

Leading the pack of martial arts students and teachers attempting the 500-kick challenge will be Project Future founder, chief instructor and director, the Rev. Robert "Bob" Heisner.

Heisner, at 64, will not only do his kicks, but immediately afterwards will do an advanced martial arts demonstration. A master instructor with more than 45 years training experience, he's currently an eighth-degree black belt. Although he could sit back and let others do the kicks to raise funds to support not only Project Future programs and scholarships, but also donations to local charities, Heisner believes in leading by example.

Plus, this year's Kick-a-thon is extra special for Heisner - Project Future, which he established 20 years ago in the spring of 1991, is now 20 years old.

Located in an unimposing building at 2720 Niagara Falls Blvd.,  Wheatfield, Project Future is not just a place where more than 1,000 local young people have trained in martial arts and fitness over the past 20 years.

"We give them martial arts instruction that is second to none," said Heisner.

The U.S. Army Vietnam-era veteran taught martial arts and self-defense at Niagara County Community College for 28 years and also has taught defensive tactics to many area law enforcement officers.

Project Future has been instrumental in seeing that well over 100 students earned their black belts. But Heisner wants and demands more than that. He instills the importance of personal discipline and responsibility in his students. The one-time youth evangelist and Christian ministry worker wants them to develop to their fullest potential as community members and future leaders.

Even those who receive scholarships to attend Project Future must help out at the center and in the community.

Handouts, Heisner believes "create lazy and irresponsible students who can never be leaders."

Students respectfully address teachers and other adults as "sir" or "ma'am." They don't argue when an infraction of the rules results in some pushups.

"We hold the bar up high," Heisner said. "If you're going to be a member of the program here, you've got to reach for the top. We will not allow 50 percent."

Heisner is tough on discipline, but his students know he cares. He's tickled when a youngster in the introductory program stops by to personally deliver an invitation to his 5th birthday party.

Former students and visitors who visit are likely to find themselves in front of the current crop of martial arts students talking about what they have done with their lives.

Eric Becker recently talked about how he was assigned by the courts to attend Project Future and is now in a master's program at the University at Buffalo.

"We challenged him to make some right choices," Heisner said. "I'm not saying every story ends that way, but I'd run out of fingers and hands to count all the successes we've had."

David Saj, a Canisius High School teacher, now a black belt, has many fond memories of Project Future, he said, and plans to attend the Kick-a-thon Saturday to make a donation.

He told Heisner's students how last year he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer considered not curable, but treatable. He was directed to a cutting edge doctor in Little Rock and on Nov. 1, All Saints Day, was told he was in complete remission.

"With your faith and family behind you and the focus and discipline you learn here, you can overcome any obstacle in life, including cancer," he told the students.

Talking to a group of kids at Project Future is different than usual. There is no whispering with friends, wiggling or surreptitious use of cell phones. They sit in orderly rows and actually listen.

Twenty years ago, working in church ministry, Heisner saw the need to reach young people. They weren't exactly lining up to join church youth groups.

"It hit me very strongly that they are the future," he said, explaining that he decided to use martial arts as his key to the future.

"We have touched, over 20 years, countless lives, not only of young people, but of families," Heisner says proudly.

Sean Parnell Sr. considers Heisner part of his family. He started bringing his son Sean Parnell Jr., now 22, to Project Future about 15 years ago. He and his wife were always looking for new therapies for Sean Jr., who has Down syndrome.

After watching a few times, Sean Sr. got involved in the adult program offered at Project Future and now volunteers there as a kick boxing teacher. Both Seans are now third degree black belts.

"He's never been offered any special consideration here," Sean Sr. said of his son's training. "You've done great, buddy," he adds to his son, who now is an assistant instructor at Project Future and an NCCC student.

Sean Jr.'s two brothers and sister also have trained in martial arts at Project Future.

Businessman Gil Dube of G&M Automotive Services on Lockport Road, not only volunteers as a teacher at the center, but also makes sure the parking lot is plowed in the winter.

The adults who volunteer are an important part of Project Future's success, Heisner said. "This is what America used to be about. It's coming together to make our community and our world a better place."

In addition to martial arts training for both kids and adults, Project Future now offers a women's self defense and survival course with 4th degree black belt Jennifer Tanguay, a women's fitness boot camp with professional body builder Sue Manera and a kick boxercise program for overall fitness.

The main focus, however, remains the kids. Heisner has no intention of giving up on them.

With armed police in schools, needless violence in the street and escalating drug use, "if we don't take time to invest and work with our kids now, our community and our country will not have a future," he said.

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