Joey Holt, 9, comes home from class. He bows to his mother. He hangs up his martial arts uniform and straightens his room. And mother, Cathy, makes a positive mark on his “report card.”

Joey is working hard to get a green “character tape” on his yellow belt from Master Vinson Villena, Taekwondo instructor and owner of Forest Park’s Flying V Athletic Center, 7221 Madison St.

“He just loves Taekwondo and the tape is a badge of honor,” said mother Cathy Holt. “He feels really good to get it.”

Joey takes after-school classes at Beye School in Oak Park, through the Beye After School Academy. He also practices in the Forest Park studio. It’s not the martial arts, per se, said his mother, noting that he took Taekwondo as a second-grader and didn’t like it – it’s the teacher.

“Master Vinson is a charismatic guy that the kids really relate to,” said Cathy Holt. “[In class] the kids are all sitting paying attention with their hands folded. They really catch onto the way the teachers want them to behave.”

“Joey could have taken any sport this winter, floor hockey, but he wants to do more Taekwondo,” Cathy Holt said. “He’ll be testing for his orange belt this weekend.”

Villena, “Master Vinson,” is the smiling Taekwondo instructor who, parents say, works magic with their children. A Filipino Olympic Taekwondo competitor, Villena (who has no children of his own) came to the United States with the dream of teaching adults, whom he figured would be better able to master the techniques.

But as he visited various U.S. martial arts schools, observing other teachers, he saw a gap that others were not filling: a focus on character education for children within the martial arts curriculum. He even saw teachers rewarding their students with candy if they sat still and paid attention, which he thought undermined respect for the teacher.

“Respect is very important for martial arts, also learning how to focus on what you’re doing and working hard to set some goals.”

Just as athletic sports build self-discipline from the outside, Villena saw that American parents needed help building kids’ internal self-discipline.

“Parenting is very challenging right now,” Villena said. “Our children don’t grow up the same way we did. There are bad influences around us. The parents should always be in the driver’s seat, always control the wheel, but sometimes that doesn’t happen,” he said, laughing.

Word of mouth has brought Villena regional success. He teaches at Francis Xavier Ward School in Chicago and Flying High Gymnastics Center in Countryside as well as in Vernon Hills, Rolling Meadows and the Park District of Jefferson Park. He’s hoping to expand his Oak Park classes to Hatch School as well.

Villena said his own experience practicing for the Olympics in his Philippine home town taught him a lot.

“I was not [naturally] talented. But I practiced three times a day, six days a week. I learned that if you set your mind to something and work hard, you repeat it until you learn how to do it.”

“We are who we are because of our past,” he said. “And for children, their future is what they do right now.”

In a typical class, Villena and assistants, Andre Ablaza, Gerald Macaballug, Giselle Dimzon, and Ania Biernat, teach children as young as age 3 to kick, block and punch. They also learn the Taegeuk or “kata” forms that they must master to advance through their belts.

But what makes Master Vinson different is the end of class.

“Who has brought their report cards?” he asks, and eager children run up to hand him quarter-page “Taekowndo Weekly Assessment Report” charts. The children are graded by parents on a list of skills, including whether they have made their bed, hung up clothes, put away toys, brush their teeth, hung up their towels, refrained from fighting with siblings or others, taken out the trash and whether they worked hard to get the “best grades possible.”

“Let’s see, Elliot has cleaned up the play room,” he tells the seated kids. “Who cleaned the play room this week? Only three people cleaned up the playroom?” he shakes his head seriously. “You need to clean up your toys every day.” The smile returns.

He then awards the coveted “Green Tape Character Stripe” for a child whose parents have filled out a form listing 12 times a child did a “good deed” without being reminded by a grown up. “Mommy will award you your green tape,” he said to a beaming child.

Are parents outsourcing the instruction of children’s manners? Villena said his classes support the work parents do at home. “I tell my instructors, we need to care about our students and take care of them. If we do, the parents will feel it and see it.” He wants to help parents teach “good habits that will last a lifetime.” Villena offers parents six months of free Taekwondo to understand what their children are working on.

He also focuses his school on helping the community, sponsoring a food drive for the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry and returning $1,200 to the Beye School PTO. “I like to donate 25 percent of membership fees to charity,” Villena said.

For Cathy Holt, Villena is a partner to help her raise her son.

“Master Vinson is accepting of everyone, all sizes and shapes – every child. The kids feel success, regardless of whether they are great at Taekwondo,” Holt said.

“They want to show Master Vinson their good behavior. They don’t have to be the best but they want to do the best they can do.” 

Master Vinson’s Character Philosophy


“When kids are being bullied, it’s because they have a lack of confidence and the bully sees that,” Villena said. “It matters how you respond to bullies, and you have to respond.” Villena calls self-confidence, the “quiet threat,” showing that you know what makes you angry and that you can “keep cool” and “convert the situation to a better conversation.”

“When you learn about yourself and how not to get angry, you are in control of the situation,” Villena said. “The greatest self-defense is being kind to other people.”

“Sometimes you have to accept [at a tournament] that you lost. It’s important to develop sportsmanship. How do you handle disappointment?” Villena said. “If you gave your best – 110 percent – you will not feel bad because you know you have given everything.”

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...