Mixed martial arts fighter Joey Beltran is known as a tenacious fighter who doesn’t give up, so students in his kickboxing classes should expect a punishing workout.
But at Wednesday morning’s class — where he teaches moderate to severely disabled teens from Vista High School — giggles, dancing and ear-to-ear smiles were just as prevalent as jabs, hooks and knee kicks.
Since January, the 32-year-old Oceanside native has been volunteering his time with the 15- and 16-year-old teens at High Performance Training Center, a boxing gym in Oceanside where he works as a trainer. Beltran grew up with a half-brother with special needs and said he feels a special connection with the disabled.
“I’ve always believed they’re angels walking on earth, and if I can coach and help these children, why wouldn’t I? The smiles are all the acknowledgment I need,” he said.
During the hourlong workout, Beltran led the seven enthusiastic teens — four with Down syndrome, three with developmental disabilities — through a jog, floor exercises, sessions on the punching bag and some partner work with punching mitts.
Laced into pink boxing gloves, sophomore Susana Colores had a hard time keeping her fists up between bursts of laughter with Caitlyn Barber, 15. Meanwhile Antonio Tovar, 16, was all business, pounding away furiously on a large round punching bag with a gleeful smile on his face.
Janine Shelton, the students’ teacher at Vista High, said she’s been amazed at how the workouts with Beltran have improved the teens’ coordination, large motor skills and classwork.
“I’ve seen an amazing effect,” said Shelton, who has taught special education for 32 years. “This has helped their focus and concentration and by getting them out in the community like this, it has built their self-confidence.”
Shelton has taken boxing classes since 2007 and for most of those years, she has brought her students to the gym to teach them techniques. When High Performance opened on Ord Way last year, Shelton signed up and met Beltran. For several weeks, he watched her run her students through drills and eventually asked if he could try teaching them himself.