They shuffle into the room, some as animated pairs, faces lit with excitement, some on their own, rubbing their hands in anticipation.
They shout and laugh at each other, practice their karate kicks, occasionally grabbing onto each other for support.
A short, sharp clap of the hands, however, has the nine-strong group scurrying onto the dojo, where their formation and demeanor — random and of volume just a few seconds previous — is now textbook uniformity and respect.
The group bows, some of them taking the lead from others, for Master Sirota and they begin.
Running on the spot; jumping up and down; counting loud and proud.
Screams of “hi-yaah!” and “waaah!” bounce off the walls and ceiling, along with a volley of “palm strike, palm strike!” and an aftershock of “punch, punch!”
In case anyone in the room was wondering, Peter owned the voice that echoed around the hall.
He is one of a group of special needs people learning the basic disciplines of martial arts.
And if anyone wondered how much this ensemble was getting out of the session, one need only take a glance at their Grand Canyon-sized smiles shining back off the gleaming wall-to-wall mirror.
They’ve been coming every week for the last four weeks to Sirota’s Alchymy in Steveston to take part in Michael Sirota’s martial arts class for special needs people of all ages.
And even in that short timeframe, Sirota has identified how far the group has come, not in becoming black belts, but in learning valuable life skills.
“They feel welcome here and they’re treated like humans,” said Sirota, who’s been running programs for special needs groups for more than 13 years and has 200 similar students on his roll.
“I never belittle them, but I still have high expectations for them. I’ve already seen a rise in their confidence and self-esteem, as well as their attention span and focus.
“At the very beginning, there was a fear of the unknown. I don’t think that’s there anymore.”
Indeed, a wall chart to the side of the floor indicates the progress being made by this group, which comes every week from the Richmond Society for Community Living, and others from the Richmond Centre for Disability.
It’s a “character development chart,” mapping each student’s progress in terms of focus, attention span, self-control, perseverance, courtesy and listening skills.
But it’s not just the students who’re getting a massive kick out of the class.
Ken Thibault, a Sirota’s Alchymy student, came in with the intention of helping Sirota with the group for just one week.
“I’ve no experience with special needs people, but they come here to have fun and they’re so excited when they walk in that door,” said Thibault.
“But bringing a smile to someone’s face is reward enough for me. This special needs group is indeed special.
“They look forward to attending class, they try hard and I’m amazed at the progress they’ve made in a matter of four weeks.”
And, the smiles, he added, are worth a million dollars.
“Michael (Sirota) thought I would get some satisfaction from associating with this group,” said Thibault.
“He was wrong — I get a huge kick from the smiles and the compassion they show for one another at class. It brings joy to my heart; they really care for each other.”
Casey Lake, a community support worker for the RSCL who brought some of the class in, said the martial arts class is already having a profound effect.
“Sometimes they simply won’t listen to what we have to say, but in there; in there it’s different, (Sirota) has their attention,” said Lake.
“They need to be physical and it’s not always that easy to get them moving around. This definitely empowers them, as they’re not sure how to express themselves, especially when they’re excited or frustrated. This is also teaching them respect.”
It’s that respect that Sirota is ultimately aiming for with his students; respect for themselves and others.
“I want to empower all people, no matter what their ability,” he said.
“It’s a chance for people to see their children shine, instead of being embarrassed, and for the person to shine and achieve, despite their disability.
“I teach them tae kwon do and hapkido, but it’s obviously adjusted to the student’s ability.”
And despite the challenges that come with instructing special needs groups, Sirota insists you don’t need to be blessed with a constant waterfall of patience.
“All you need is a heart and to be compassionate, everything else is secondary,” said Sirota, who’s been invited to the World Tae Kwon Do Foundation next month to conduct a workshop on martial arts for special needs people. “I make sure not to treat them differently and never feel sorry for them.
“I’ve seen students make monumental improvements, from just running around all the time to really focusing and carrying out instructions.”