GREENFIELD — Flipping through her cellphone to find the right video, Pam Jacobs cautions a group of onlookers that what they are about to see is truly amazing.
The first clip was taken about three months ago. Her 15-year-old son, Jonah, struggles to get out of a wheelchair, all but dragging his feet along the ground, his armed draped over the shoulders of his mother and father for support.
For many years, this was the reality for the boy who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy as a toddler. As Jonah began to lose the use of his legs as the disease gradually broke down his muscle mass, he also seemed to lose hope, his mother said. And when he suffered a broken leg — a side effect of medication that weakens his bones — last spring, his family feared the injury would leave him in a wheelchair permanently.
But now, Jonah is walking again — a feat his family credits to the instructors at a local martial arts dojo who challenged a young boy to fight against a disease that threatens to rob him of his mobility.
Jacobs keeps a second video on her phone, as well — proof of the change she’s seen in her son, she said.
One night three months ago, when the first clip was taken, was the first time Jonah came to Interceptive Techniques, a martial arts dojo in Greenfield.
They hadn’t intended to stop by but had been shopping in the area. Something Jacobs can’t explain made her stop.
Her son had never expressed an interested in martial arts, and the highly physical nature of the sport wasn’t something doctors would typically recommend for a muscular dystrophy patient.
But among the crowd of friendly strangers standing outside the facility that night before classes began was a man named Jacob Kimberlin.
Kimberlin, a teacher at the dojo, stood out to Jacobs in the crowd.
“And I just walked right up and pointed to him, and I said, ‘It’s you. You’re gonna help my kid,’” Jacobs recalled.
And Kimberlin did.
And, now, Jonah is walking without help for the first time in years.
His mother doesn’t really know what to call it.
Magic. Perseverance. A miracle.
“I just know I have my kid back.”
Clinging to hope
Doctors diagnosed Jonah with muscular dystrophy when he was just 3 years old. The incurable genetic disorder makes muscles throughout the body weaken, causing those afflicted by the illness to lose their ability to walk, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Medicine and some forms of mild physical therapy have been found to improve a person’s quality of life, clinic experts say. But eventually, the muscles deteriorate so severely the patient has trouble breathing and swallowing, officials said.
Jacobs has a vivid memory of her son riding a tricycle around the time of his diagnosis. In that moment, her little boy seemed happy and healthy, as normal as any other child his age.
She’s clung to that memory over the years, as she watched Jonah’s health slowly decline.
For the past 10 years, he’s depended on a walker or wheelchair to go any distance beyond a few steps.
After his injury, Jonah could hardly move his legs enough to walk at all. His teachers tutor him at his home because navigating a traditional school day became too difficult and tiring.
The sense of defeat overwhelmed him. Everything just seemed to be getting worse, Jonah said.
And then he met Kimberlin.
One evening in June, Jonah, his mother and father, were shopping in the plaza that houses Interceptive Techniques, 1224 W. Main St., Greenfield, when Wayne and Pam Jacobs wandered over to the building they’d really never noticed before.
And there was a Kimberlin, talking and laughing with members of the dojo heading in for class. And for whatever reason, they stopped him.
Kimberlin remembers the exchange with Jonah’s parents. He listened as they told him their story, expressed concern about their son’s spirits.
Kimberlin wandered over to the family’s minivan to find Jonah looking sad and defeated in the backseat.
He admits he saw a bit of himself in Jonah that night. Having been diagnosed with cancer when he was just 3 years old, Kimberlin knows a bit about fighting a disease that takes hold of the entire body.
Kimberlin fought leukemia as a toddler and again when he was 8. During his second bout with the illness, he was told he, like Jonah, might never walk again.
But Kimberlin wouldn’t settle for that, he said. And he wouldn’t let Jonah, either.
So, he did the first thing that came to his mind; Kimberlin made Jonah a deal. If the boy would try to walk, Kimberlin would bench-press 160 pounds, Jonah’s body weight — one rep for every step Jonah could muster.
And Jonah, a sucker for a challenge, agreed.
Kimberlin can be heard in the background of that first video, calling out encouragement to Jonah, who took 20 very small, very careful steps that day with a grimace etched across his face.
He did his best to push through the pain, Jonah said, and jumped at the opportunity when Kimberlin asked if he’d come back again the next day to try it again.
A routine was born from there. Each day, Jonah visited the dojo, shared a few laughs with Kimberlin and walked a few steps.
The lengths were short at first, from one side of the little dojo to the other. Eventually, they moved the path outside as Jonah gain strength enough to walk longer distances. And Jonah started practicing martial arts under Kimberlin’s watchful eye, starting with simple stretches and working his way to striking punching bags.
Now, Kimberlin calls Jonah his inspiration, and Jonah has someone to call his buddy.
And the pair is making plans to keep Jonah motivated. In September, Kimberlin is participating in a mixed martial arts fight. Jonah will follow by Kimberlin’s side as his mentor makes his way to the ring — the longest path Jonah has walked so far.
In the meantime, Jonah wants to keep tackling martial arts with Kimberlin as his teacher, and Kimberlin wants to help Jonah keep tackling obstacles.
“This is not about punching and kicking,” Kimberlin said with a smile. “Martial arts makes you the person you can be.”