Bennett McKee (Photo by Rasy Ran)

Bennett McKee (Photo by Rasy Ran)

Bennett McKee beams when his dad, Chris, nods at him from across the table and says matter-of-factly: “He’s a strong dude.”

Bennett holds up his left arm and flexes, grinning widely.

“Exactly,” Chris says with a chuckle.

Nineteen-year-old Bennett has Down syndrome, but that doesn’t keep him from participating in martial arts classes with what the McKee family calls “typical kids” — or from succeeding in the sport. He has worked his way up the ranks to receive a purple belt with a black stripe.

“I love karate,” Bennett says.

The McKees live in Lakewood and Bennett attends Notre Dame School in downtown Dallas, which has been serving students with special needs for more than 50 years. Bennett participates in several sports through Special Olympics, but his parents, Lori and Chris, like that martial arts is an individual sport that allows Bennett to move at his own pace, and it allows him to interact with typical kids, usually junior high students.

“This is the one thing that he can do with the other kids,” Chris explains. “He learns with the other kids and competes with the other kids.”

He does it three days a week, and although his parents appreciate the benefits, martial arts originally was Bennett’s idea. He discovered it during a friend’s birthday party and couldn’t get enough.

“When we left the party, he kept saying, ‘I want to sign up for karate’,” Lori says.

Chris and Lori found Chamberlain Studios in Lakewood, which welcomed Bennett. The progression of levels is key to his success in the program.

“You start out with really basic skills,” Chris says. “They were really patient with him, and he picked it up.”

Bennett is almost finished with the high school portion at Notre Dame. Next year he’ll go into the vocational program, where he’ll graduate with the class of 2020. Right now he works at the Luby’s on Mockingbird, and Lori believes martial arts has helped him with his customer service skills.

“With martial arts, there’s that respect,” Lori says. “When he gets there, he has to shake everyone’s hand, look them in the eye and greet them. I think that has helped him at work and in other parts of his life as well.”

The structure and rules are helpful as well, Chris points out. To get belts, students have to take tests, know certain terms and do things around the house.

It keeps Bennett active, and it has helped him to become physically strong.

“They always talk about how strong he is,” Chris says.

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