An indomitable spirit guides local martial arts studio

Suzette Lowe

There are specific tenets for the discipline of Tae-Kwon-Do. The principles of courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and an indomitable spirit guide every aspect of the sport.

For Spencer and Lesley Hill, it is more than that. Their vision is reflected in the name of their studio, Ripley Family Martial Arts Center.

“It really is about family,” Lesley said. “We are dedicated to building a feeling of community, with everyone who takes classes here feeling like it’s their school.”

The Hills exemplify that sense of family because they both, along with their children, have earned black belts of different degrees.

They all achieved their goals under the direction of the former owners of the studio, Chuck and Sonia Raines.

Their son, Adam, saw the martial arts training center and thought, according to his father, that it looked like fun. In 2009, he obtained his first-degree black belt at the age of seven.

Sisters Allie and Kara followed him in attaining their black belts. Finally, all that was left were the parents.

Spencer challenged his wife, saying, “If you don’t get in there, you’ll be the only one in the family without a black belt.”

She accepted that challenge, issuing one of her own that she would go if he would as well.

For Spencer, the goal was his second degree belt.

“I actually earned my black belt when I was a teenager growing up in Gauley Bridge,” he recalled. “It was at the Gauneka school with Sam Cale as my sensei which means teacher. The unusual name came from the fact that the Gauley, New, and Kanawha Rivers meet at Gauley Bridge.”

Upon entering the United States Army, Spencer became a turret mechanic and left martial arts behind. He went on to become a corrections officers in Pocahontas County and a trainer at a corrections academy held at Parchment Valley. He is now staffing analysis analyst with the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Lesley, who is the Director of Inmate Classification and Movement at the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said other than self-defense training, she had done no martial arts.

While Lesley stayed a first-degree black belt, Spencer has achieved his third-degree.

They both credit the former owners of the facility for their continued love and dedication to the sport.

“When Chuck died, Sonia kept the school going,” Lesley said. “There came a time when she wanted to step away, so in October 2020, we took the plunge and bought the business.”

With ten classes currently offered each week, ages range from five to 61-years-old.

All teachers are black belts, with Spencer as the highest ranking.

“We encourage our students to become teachers as well,” Lesley said. “We try to instill the idea that the best way to keep a skill is to give it away.”

Spencer explained that being a teacher as well as a student is of great benefit.

“They notice the details which also helps them develop their own skills as well,” he said. “It teaches patience and discipline. Sometimes it’s less intimidating for a young one or beginner to be guided by someone their own age or size.”

For Brooke Knowlton, the benefits for three of her children are immeasurable.

“With COVID, my 11-year-old Noah needed the interaction,” she said. “For him and Zane who’s eight, it‘s discipline and sport, but for my daughter Bella Anna, it’s been life changing. She was a very shy and reserved five-year-old but now she’s gained confidence and excitement. I have one who’s turning five soon who is excited to join as well.”

Setting up stations which keep everyone occupied is another aspect of the martial arts center.

“About the only time anyone is sitting is when they’re learning terminology or getting ready to spar,” Spencer said. “We keep them engaged.”

That engagement is what drew Meghan Parsons to the center.

“After dealing with COVID, I needed to find a way to train my mind and body at the same time,” she said. “I loved the tenets of Tae-Kwon-Do and asked my boys to join me, and my 15-year-old twins agreed.”

While fearing they might not stick with it, Parsons was pleasantly surprised.

“They both immediately fell in love with it,” she said. “When we were invited to double test, going for two levels at one qualifying event, we took as many classes as we could. We’ve had a lot of laughs learning and practicing together but we’ve found our indomitable spirits as well.”

That qualifying event occurred on Jan. 30 with 40 students trying for varying levels of belts.

One young man, Victor Greathouse, was the lone contender for a black belt (see related story).

The Hills continue to seek ways to improve and add to their martial arts center, offering scholarships and a variety of classes at different levels.

The class on Wednesday evening, and noon to 1 p.m. on Saturdays, is called the “quiet class.”

“This is one for sensory cautious students,” Lesley said. “It’s a smaller class with less noise and more one-on-one instruction.“

A new class in basic self-defense will begin in March. The four Saturday classes will last about three hours each and will focus on learning to fall correctly, basic escapes, and situational awareness.

For the Hills, their philosophy is reflective of Tae-Kwon-Do itself.

“Our teaching style is disciplined, but encouraging,” Lesley said. “We want to discover what you need to help you succeed.”

The center is located at 113 1/2 Main Street in Ripley. For information, call 304-377-8283.