By Ukee Washington

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The owners of a Northeast Philadelphia martial arts studio are bringing karate to kids and adults with special needs, and it’s free. The karate mat at AmeriKick Northeast is full of eager students ready to show off their training, guided by Mark Gallagher, or Sensei Mark.

“And what makes a sidekick special?” he asked. “It goes to the?”

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“Side!” the students shouted.

Gallagher and his wife Alicia founded the AmeriKick Cares Foundation. In January 2020, they started a weekly Thursday class for people with special needs, grade school-aged to grownup.

“They don’t get the opportunity all the time to have their own environment,” Mark said, “and this is just such a positive room with great energy, and it’s just for them.”

Everything about this 45-minute class is free, even the uniforms. The staff volunteers their time.

Mother Tina Reyes, whose 9-year-old son Mark joined the class, said, “Something like this has been like a godsend to us, and he loves coming here.”

The class is perfect for children like 8-year-old Lana Vitale, says her father Larry: “For four, four and a half years, Lana has been with me sitting in the seats watching Noah,” her 9-year-old brother.

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Now Lana can be a karate student too. Noah helps teach.

“It feels, like, more exciting,” Noah said. “Autistic kids (…) come, and their brother and sister come. I feel like it’s more fun.”

Assistant instructor Steven McLaughlin says he is thrilled with the progress the students have made in only a month.

“Seeing those guys go from just doing their own thing to being able to focus for that entire time frame, that’s awesome,” he said.

All the instructors ask is that students commit to attending every week. A waitlist is already forming, and Mark hopes to raise funds so even more people can attend.

“There’s been a lot of happy tears the past couple of weeks,” Mark said. “I don’t know who is having more fun, them or us.”

The best way to reach Mark Gallagher and AmeriKick Cares Foundation is via Facebook.

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Ukee Washington