Teaching kids personal safety skills is not a job, it is a passion for Ron Esteller.
Esteller is the owner of Esteller Martial Arts in Pleasanton and San Leandro. The kajukenbo martial arts he teaches at Esteller is a blend of karate (ka), ju jitsu (ju), kempo (ken) and Chinese boxing or kung fu (bo).
“I was teaching this before the ‘Karate Kid’ and ‘Ninja Turtles’ when it was mostly an adult sport back then,” said a smiling Esteller.
Founded in Hawaii in 1947, by five black belts from various martial arts, “kajukenbo” was designed by combining the most effective techniques in one art. It is considered one of the first “American” martial arts and is internationally recognized.
“My roots are Hawaiian even though I am a California boy,” said Esteller, who started practing martial arts when he was 13.
In 1984, Esteller started teaching children at the Boys & Girls Club in San Leandro and he opened his first studio in 1999. The Pleasanton studio has been open since 2012. Esteller’s students come from all over the Bay Area and as far as South San Francisco, Stockton and Santa Cruz.
The studios have become a family affair with Esteller’s son and daughter helping with classes. Esteller hopes to one day turn his studios over to his children.
“I am thrilled to be in Pleasanton,” he said.
Esteller says his students earn their ranks and there is no time line for earning belts. He also does not charge for belt testing.
“We are not a belt factory,” he said. “Their hard work earns their rank and there is no time limit. You work hard and it will pay off. It [earning belts] is hard because it encompasses so many arts- it is hard to learn.”
Esteller has become well-known for his “S.A.F.E K.I.D.S” anti-abduction program, which he teaches at local junior high and high schools. The program has nine classes and includes the instructor dressing in a full attack suit on the last day. The goal is for the students to fight him off and keep him from dragging them out of the room. Esteller calls it the “taking to the van” drill and says it can evoke major emotions in the students.
“The kajukenbo philosophy is to make it real every time,” he said. “We use ‘andrenal stress training’ and this is the one technique that will save your life. You can learn to take a hit as well as give it and you have a better chance of survival.”
According to Esteller, kids between the ages of 11 and 15 are vulnerable and statistically have a higher chance of being abducted because they cannot yet drive and they are often walking, riding a bike, skating or taking the bus.
“S.A.F.E stands for ‘survey, avoid, flee and engage’,” he said. “And K.I.D.S is an acronym for ‘kids in danger survive’.”
Having lost a cousin in 1979 to violent crime, Esteller knows the pain of child abduction personally.
“My eight-year-old cousin, Tina Marie Salazar, was kidnapped and killed walking home from school in 1979,” Esteller explained. “Since teaching my S.A.F.E K.I.D.S program, we have helped prevent at least two abductions that we know about. There was a twelfth grader in Castro Valley who was grabbed one block from school and she fought the attacker off. She had taken my S.A.F.E. K.I.D.S. class when she was in eighth grade. When they arrested the suspect, he had a ‘kill kit’ in the van.”
Esteller shares those stories with his students and also tries to inspire his students to do some kind of practice every day.
“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect,” says Esteller.
Currently, Esteller has about 40 to 50 students in his Pleasanton studio and about 150 students attending the San Leandro studio. He says kids around the ages of 4 to 5 are the best age to starting classes – although he has had younger students. He says that even the younger children will get the muscle memory of the techniques until they are old enough understand what they are doing.
One of Esteller’s long-time students started when he was not yet 3 and now at the age of 9 is able to teach many of the adults. Esteller says they also have students with special needs such as Asperbeger’s disorder and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder.
The goal in Esteller’s studios is for the students to have fun, to get positive reinforcement of their physical, mental and spiritual selves. He also teaches the traditions embeded in these arts.
“To ensure our future, we always have to preserve our past,” commented Esteller. “There is a code of honor that should be in taught in martial arts.”
He ends the classes with the students removing their belts, wiping the sweat off their brown and repeating the mantra of “mind, body, spirit.”
Esteller’s martial arts studio won the Patch Readers’ Choice for Best Martial Arts Studio in Pleasanton in 2012.
Esteller offers new students a free week of classes so parents and students can try it and make sure it is a goo fit for them.