By: Leah Deen-Sandoval

Megan and Bill Girton, owners of Girton’s ATA Taekwondo, are an extraordinary duo. Extraordinary in the way that their daily actions create such a positive impact in the lives of everyone they come into contact with. Aside from having created a wonderful family unit, with 6 beautiful children, some of which have disabilities, they have created a warm, inviting atmosphere for people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities to stretch their limbs and learn the art of Taekwondo.

The Girtons have tasked themselves with a few quite significant missions, in their values as a family. One being their implementation regarding inclusion, which they have worked hard at within their own martial arts studio and spread within the worldwide America Taekwondo Association as a whole. Another mission is their active role within the Foster Care System, currently working as a “Treatment Foster Care” family. Friendship Circle was allowed the wonderful opportunity to speak with this family within their home and studio.

Growing up, Megan always had a healthy awareness of individuals with special needs. All of her volunteer hours in Washington state, from middle school to high school to college, were committed to working with a wide variety of people.

“… Many people who had special needs – its deplorable to think about now – but then, they were in facilities. A lot of my hours were spent working within these homes to improve their lives. Take them on activities, go play with them, read with them, do whatever they enjoyed doing.” Because of this background, Megan has experience and is comfortable working with people that may be vastly different from herself. When she came into ownership of her very own Martial Arts School, she learned that the Martial Arts Taekwondo Association had a division called Special Abilities. This is a division for people who have special needs. There’s also a group for people with Autism, and another for people with cognitive disabilities. Megan decided to begin training people from these groups; her school in Seattle taught about 300 students, and about one third of them were in Special Ability competitions.

There was a lot of effort and dedication placed into creating such a welcoming space. Megan began training staff, working to properly teach her employees regardless of the lack of information from the athletic world at the time. Teachers and instructors would usually ask her, “How can I accommodate somebody?” and present her with a

myriad of hypotheticals, “What if they don’t have a foot? How are they going to kick if they don’t have a foot?” Megan then explained “… Well, if he can’t talk, is it okay if he just doesn’t talk? Does he really have to talk? Does he? He doesn’t have to talk! We focus on what they can do. Not what they can’t. We never say, “I can’t.” We figure out “how can they use what they have to enjoy this art?”

Megan helped develop a curriculum within the Taekwondo Association dedicated to teaching special individuals. Megan’s career then expanded, as she went to the Special Olympics, and participated in a Teacher and Mentor program. The American Taekwondo Association now works more with  individuals with special needs.

Aside from having this expansive background with those with special needs, she has relatives and children within her own family that are part of this community. In a very beautiful sense, Megan and Bill Girton have been able to sagely use their skills and experiences learned throughout their life and apply it to their home life. This is a family that does not just teach inclusion and acceptance, but in fact, their life is interwoven with it. This is who they are.

You can find Megan and Bill teaching a wide range of people within their studio in Fox Point – inside there are inspirational quotes from Grand Masters stretched along all four grey walls. The red and black mats are usually comfortably crowded with excited children and adults alike, and shiny trophies line the upper parts of the walls in an eye-catching display of achievements. In a class Megan hosts in collaboration with Friendship Circle staff and participants, she teaches a diverse group Taekwondo, and basic self-defense. On a sunny day, she decided to host this class outside, leading the eclectic group beneath a large tree in a quiet corner of a park. Her long spanning experience as a teacher was evident; It was present in her happy disposition and authoritative tone; Her patient looks and motivational speech. Her voice rang across the group, and she led them back to the activities and exercises at hand whenever attention deviated. Not only did she – and her young helper Lucy – continuously encourage and interact on a personal level with every single one of their students, but she was able to create a space completely devoid of judgment. Allowing each individual personality to shine in a way that is rare to see in any group of people.

Growing up In Seattle, Washington with 5 brothers, she was well acquainted with the idea of a large family; This perhaps even served as further motivation for taking in children through foster care. When Megan relocated to Wisconsin, she and her husband Bill noted that many of her students were in “out-of-home” care. They observed this large, gaping need, and together they decided to get licensed to foster kids. You will find a common theme in the lives of the Girton’s revolve around them seeing a need and being kind and generous enough to fill it.

Being in the Girton’s home is like being shrouded in a feeling of peace. Megan describes the chaos that accompanies being in the foster care system, the hectic schedules, the sudden arrivals and drop-of-the-hat changes that need to be made to accommodate the lives of previous children that enter their home. In spite of this, her home oozed the comfort of a well-lived-in home. Her youngest daughter Lucy sat on the couch leisurely reading her book. The cats lazily groomed themselves while they bathed in the early morning light coming from the large glass windows spanning the front of their house, and there sat the Girtons amongst it all, contributing to the feeling of open,

steady calmness. It certainly felt like a home, which is what most kids - feeling all the turbulence from the foster care system - need most. Something steady, and solid. Something real.

A great part of foster care is seeing the children’s growth. When a child enters their home, they have no permanency. “Sometimes they don’t have a lick on them, not even their own clothes. They don’t have a shred of a life, except what lives in their memory,” the Girton said. Teaching these children that they are cared for and loved, that they’ll have meals, help with their homework (albeit they might not want the latter), that’s permanency. It is what every child needs. Once they have established this sense of something concrete within their lives, they can begin to grow.

In inquiring about the possible challenges they may face in opening their home to many children, they started off by stating that they don’t have nice things within the house. “And we don’t have nice things on purpose, because things break. Kids who come into out of home care… a lot of times it’s behavioral. Things get broken. Other than my cats and children, they can break it. It’s okay. Nothing is expensive, these are things that will get picked up and thrown. Next week we’ll get another one, and they’ll break that one, too. The hardest part is watching their anger come out and … just watching.” Bill echoes some of this hardship and thinks it’s important that those considering becoming foster parents be met with the sometimes-harsh reality of foster care. The battles, the fights. The hard work that it takes to re-unify a child with their family. “I want them to be ready and aware that so many children can be labeled as having ADHD, having oppositional defiance, or any of those alphabet-soup letters… when it’s trauma. They could have been abused, neglected.” Awareness of this, and the damage that it can cause a child to be removed from a home because it’s unexpected, is paramount information for entering foster families.

The Girton’s believe that their family, first and foremost, should value empathy. “Our family has to be able to meet a person where they are.” Attunement, to attempt to understand those that are not able to readily communicate their needs yet. And the value of being a cohesive family unit, a team. The family is a very united group of people. Everyone has their role in the family. Every person that enters the house gets a job and are taught that they are needed to help the family operate. Again, this allows new members of the family to have routine, and structure. Additionally, the Girtons share their appreciation for Martial Arts by enrolling every single one of their foster children into Taekwondo. It’s a bonding experience that allows the family to spend time together. They strongly believe that it teaches discipline, confidence, and self-esteem, outside of being a healthy activity for them.

Ultimately, there are many reasons why people go into foster care, and according to the Girtons, not any one reason is bad. There is a need, and they are strong advocates as to why people should consider filling it if they are interested in doing so.

The Girton’s most encompassing goal in taking in children, is reunifying them with their family. Megan proceeds to state that her family has reunified 31 children already.

According to Megan and Bill, a large reward in fostering children is, “It teaches you to love everybody. It teaches you to find the great in all things, and all people.”