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A Mom’s Mission to End Violence Against Children One Broken Board at a Time: Interview with Shana Kavaloff


Shana Kavaloff is a talented martial artist, loving mother and committed wife who is determined to end slavery and injustice in the developing world. This April, she’ll do her part by participating in Breaking Boards Breaking Chains (BBBC), an annual Break-a- thon event hosted by British Columbia based non-profit Martial Arts for Justice.

Her willing spirit and positive attitude are what have afforded her success amidst her own life's challenges, and we had the privilege of hearing her inspiring story first-hand. Read Shana's interview to see how this super mom is protecting children from violence one broken board at a time. (Involved in martial arts? Click here to learn more about BBBC and register your school)
1) Shana, tell us a bit about yourself and your life up to this point.

I’m 48, I’ve got a 16-year-old son, and I’ve been married for 28 years. Twenty years ago I was diagnosed with MS, so I never actually thought I’d even be in martial arts. I’m actually in remission, but I’m not a very athletic person. I got involved in martial arts because my son was in Taekwondo and he had just started and he really liked it, and he said, "Well mom, are you going to do it too?” And I kind of looked at him funny like, "Why would I do that?” But I wanted to support him and my husband reminded me that the doctors had said for my health I should do some stretching, and that it would probably be good for me.
My husband was a black belt already, and he thought it might be good for my health. So I thought, "Why not, I’ll go to a couple of classes, do some stretching and see what happens.” I obviously wasn’t as good as some people and I had a lot to learn.
I thought at some point someone would say, "Okay, you’ve gone as far as you can go, time for you to quit.” Instead, I kept getting belts and then more belts, and more belts, and more colours.
When we got involved in Breaking Boards Breaking Chains, all of a sudden I had a vision that compelled me, like there was a purpose behind it for me. It wasn’t just about exercise, it was more than that--quite a bit more than that. I’m not a super competitive person, so it’s not like I had a drive to be a black belt or anything, I was just in it to support my son. But when we did the first Breaking Boards Breaking Chains event, and I wrote words on the boards like "rape” and "child slavery”, I just felt so empowered that I was doing something amazing to make a difference. I was scared to break boards actually, I didn’t even think I could do it.
It wasn’t about breaking the boards, it was more [about] breaking the chains of slavery, it was the symbolic act of what we were trying to do by raising the money.
I felt so amazing that I could actually make a difference because when people send money to charity, they don’t really feel like their money does anything. But with IJM Canada, we end up seeing results, we end up hearing about the results, about people’s stories. And that’s amazing to me. I know the first time I donated money, they started sending me stories online and I would read about people that had been rescued. It just meant so much to me as a mom because I can’t imagine having children in situations like that. And even parents that put their kids into situations of slavery because they’re desperate-- I’m so thankful that I don’t have to do that. For me, [Breaking Boards Breaking Chains] was a vision that I could make a difference.

2) How did your school get involved with BBBC?

Our [martial arts] school was just doing it as we are connected with the schools in Nelson and the Junction. We didn’t really know what it was all about until we got involved with it. I’d guess they were using the breaking boards part of it to make it attractive to the kids. They initially said that for every so many dollars raised you would get to break one board. So people would set goals, such as, "I’m going to break 10 boards and that’s equal to so many dollars.” Every year we’re raising the amount to make it more and more.
I took the idea to my church and said, "Hey, we’re doing this and would you like to support us?” So people in church would come up to me, just hand me money and say, "I expect you to break 20 boards.” Other people get the vision too, they believe in it, they like knowing where the money is going to and they really like the cause.

3) Did you come to learn about IJM through BBBC?
Yeah, I did. It was through the BBBC event that I learned about it.

4) How did you explain it to your church when they asked you about Breaking Boards Breaking Chains?

Well, we did have some little mini videos from IJM that we showed at the church. Last year, a friend of mine and I that were in Taekwondo together put together a skit. One of our tenets is to be champions of freedom and justice, and so we put on capes.
We had previously been joking around that every time we say that part of the student oath it makes us feel like superheroes, so we thought, "Wouldn’t it be funny to do a skit about being a superhero and how you can be a champion too?” We carried stacks of boards under our arms, walked across the stage, and had someone approach us to ask what we were doing. We informed them we were breaking boards, to which they then queried why we were wearing capes. "Oh, we’re champions!” So we did this little skit that ended with, "You can be champions too, you can just open your wallets and donate to this cause. You don’t even have to wear a cape!”

5) How hard is it to break a board?

I guess it depends. One year I was able to do about 10 of them, and then the next year I wasn’t able to do that many. And I know one lady who has done about 50, that was her goal. I don’t think she did them all in one day, but it just depends on what body part you’re using and your technique.
Last year I had a cold and had cracked a rib.I didn’t have a lot of strength so I didn’t break a lot of [boards], but some of the kids in our club really wanted to break boards and hadn’t raised enough money, so I let them break some of mine. They helped me out.

6) Do you have a favourite break that you’ve done?

Probably my very first one. It was at a tournament, not a BBBC event, but I wasn’t sure I could even do it. And it was in front of a lot of people, including our senior grand masters, so I was rather scared. This was also in front of a whole bunch of kids that had broken boards, and I thought, "What if I can’t do it, what if I break my toe?” But I decided I at least had to try.
I took the advice from the grand master, and she showed me what I had to do, and then I just gave it a try. And it worked! It happened! I didn’t even feel my foot at all, there wasn’t any pain.
Sometimes you just don’t know until you try.

Since then, when we got our black belts we had to try and break concrete. I was holding a brick and the same thought ran through my mind, "Am I going to do this?” But once more, I realized I just had to try and I was able to do it. There have been other times when I’ve tried to chop a board with my hand and it didn’t work, just sort of bounced off. I think a lot of it is preparation, speed, control, power, accuracy, and being mentally prepared.
You don’t want to have any regrets. You don’t want to say that you never tried so you’ll never know.

7) So why is it important for you to be a part of this event?

As a mom, I feel like I have a responsibility to the other moms to take care of the kids that I can take care of. I would hope that other mothers would do the same for my child.
It’s nothing in our country to spend five or ten bucks on a coffee or whatever, it’s no big deal. But that is a huge difference if you get a number of people together and each one spends a little bit. We know that there are more martial artists than there are slaves, and if each martial artist does a little bit and they have fun doing it by breaking boards – every martial artist gets totally addicted to breaking boards, it’s really fun actually!
When you realize you can do it as a woman and as a mom, it’s very empowering. You realize that something as simple as that can be used to raise money. People get really interested in doing it, or just watching it even if they don’t do it. As far as supporting someone– compared to just giving money randomly for no reason, people have a harder time doing that– something like this is a part of the martial arts sport. It’s fun, but it makes you feel like you’re doing something on this side of the world, for someone on that side of the world. It’s a concrete action that is very symbolic.

8) How do the martial arts relate to defending and protecting the rights of others?

If you’re connected in this situation with IJM, and even if you’re not– for me, I have a vision to teach women self-defense. I believe that women all over the world can be affected by that, especially in this situation of slavery. I think as martial artists, there’s anti-bullying issues, teaching girls how to protect themselves so they are able to fend off attacks.
Even just in self-defense situations or defending others on the streets, I believe that’s where it can be used. It’s not always used that often, but in any instance you’re ready if it’s needed, and I think that’s really important.

9) Why is it important and why should all Canadian martial artists participate in BBBC?

I haven’t been in all martial arts schools, but most martial arts schools talk about being champions of freedom and justice. It’s more than just a sport, it’s using what you know for the good of others. It’s not using your skills say, to go and beat up people, it’s to go and rescue. You may not get the opportunity on the streets to rescue someone, but if you can use your training and your skill to participate in BBBC, you can actually rescue someone by doing that.
They say only 10% of the time does a martial artist ever use their skills in a situation of self-defense, but in a situation like this, every single year you can raise money for IJM and rescue people all the time.
The more people that do it, and encourage others to do it, the greater the impact we can have.

10) What else would you like to share with the readers?

Initially, many people that join a sport or martial art start out with the idea that it’s just a sport. But then they can have a transformation that occurs somewhere along the line, and it becomes more than that. There’s a purpose in it. Whether you choose to run with that purpose or not is up to the person. As humans, we have a responsibility to each other to use what we have been given. When we have an opportunity like this, it affects all of us, all around.
We’re not just paying our monthly dues, but we’re actually affecting each other in the world and it’s really gratifying to know that we can actually have a purpose in what we’re doing every week by training. And being a part of IJM Canada has been really amazing. You know, taekwondo aside, I would still be a part of it.
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About Martial Arts for Justice
Started in 2013, Martial Arts for Justice (MAJ) is designed to be an alliance of martial artists and school owners who choose to actively pursue justice, locally and globally. The primary goal of MAJ is to mobilize martial artists and school owners on a global level to fight for victims of violence and against slavery and human trafficking.
About IJM Canada
International Justice Mission Canada is part of a global organization protecting the poor from violence throughout the developing world. We partner with local authorities to rescue victims of violence, bring criminals to justice, restore survivors, and strengthen justice systems. Learn more about our work here.

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