The Gonzalez family-run Winter Garden Karate is celebrating 15 years of teaching martial arts.
Despite the rollercoaster of running a business and all the uncertainty it brings, there’s one spot on Plant Street — just down the road from downtown Winter Garden — that has found its niche and survived for 15 years.
Winter Garden Karate has called its building home since Kermit Gonzalez decided to make his dream a reality back in 2004. And every day it pays off.
“Through all the good, the bad and the ugly that we’ve had over here, it shows the public that we are stable,” Kermit said. “Our goal is to show these kids what is important for them to move forward in life. We try to incorporate how important it is to be respectful and to be able to follow certain guidelines that they don’t get to follow elsewhere.”
The life lessons taught in his home away from home over the years have stuck with his students like glue, and it’s been a big part of Winter Garden Karate’s success.
And with that decade-and-a-half run of sustainability for Kermit — as well as his son, Li, and daughter, Yaidel — he’s been a part of some families’ lives for multiple generations.
“I run into kids in the street that I don’t even recognize anymore — that is an inspiration,” Kermit said. “Kids that are parents now tell me, ‘When my daughter or my son gets older, I’m going to bring them to you.’ That tells me a lot — that tells me that we are doing something good for the community.”
THE JOURNEY TO SELF-DEFENSE
Sometimes athletes go into their sport because they have a desire to do something fun. That wasn’t so much the case for Kermit.
Growing up as a boy in Caguas, Puerto Rico, Kermit got his dose of the real world at a young age. In 1970, at the age of 10, Kermit was mugged by five thugs — this was the turning point for him.
“After I got jumped, I saw this guy was teaching taekwondo in my neighborhood, and I went to him,” Kermit said. “From that point forward I started learning different arts — from taekwondo to Korean-based, Japanese-based and Hawaiian-based martial arts. And I liked it.”
Five years later — before he had even graduated high school — Kermit already had earned a first-degree black belt in Shotokan karate. Then, two years later and just before he joined the U.S. Army, he had attained a second-degree black belt in Shotokan karate and his first-degree black belt in Kyokushinkai karate.
His time in martial arts went a long way during his 20-plus year stint in the military, as he would eventually go on to teach hundreds and hundreds of soldiers hand-to-hand combat.
FROM THE GARAGE TO THE DOJO
What you see now at Winter Garden Karate’s longtime home is the realization of a dream that started — of all places — in the Gonzalez family’s garage.
At their home in Gotha, Li and Yaidel — alongside a handful of other kids from the neighborhood — would take in lessons led by Kermit in conditions that Li said weren’t exactly ideal.
There was no A/C, it was hot and there was no real padding. It was a normal, everyday garage.
“That’s the funny part: people would ask, ‘Where did you start at? What school do you go to?’ and I’d say, ‘Our garage,’” Li said. “We literally opened our garage and moved the cars out — you look to the left and you’ll see an oil pan.
“We had a carpet and that’s what we trained on, and the only reason we had a carpet is because we didn’t want to have dirt on our feet,” Li said.
Since those early days a lot has changed for the Gonzalez family and their dojo. Instead of practicing on carpet in the oppressive heat in their garage, the students who come through the door at Winter Garden get the privilege of having padded floors and glorious A/C.
And over the years for Li and Yaidel, who are both fourth-degree black belts in Shito-ryu, they’ve also stepped up as not just students, but also as instructors — roles they’ve served for years now.
In the case of Yaidel, who really started teaching seriously in 2006, it’s hard to grasp the fact that the dojo is celebrating its 15th year. All of the years feel as though they’ve been “mushed” together, as she puts it.
“‘It’s been 15 years, are you serious?’ — that’s where my mind is because it doesn’t seem like it,” Yaidel said.
There’s a surreality to seeing your business not just grow, but thrive after 15 years in the community.
“We started off small, and we never expected to have it travel as far as it has,” Yaidel said. “We’ve accumulated a lot of students throughout the years … but we’ve come from nothing and we are still striving to achieve more — for the community, as well as to help the kids in general.”