“Hana! Dul! Set!”

It’s a Friday morning at Studios Group Martial Arts. Black-belt instructor, Karleen Thibault, stands at the front of the spacious studio as her young students do their taekwondo warm-up exercise. Proudly displaying their belts on their white uniforms, the students take their taekwondo stances while counting to 10 in Korean.

For students, this is a taekwondo class, but for Thibault, this is her form of healing.

“You know, I have really bad days where I will be crying up until I walk into the room to teach my four and five-year-olds,” says Thibault. “When I get into that room, everything just kind of goes away […] By the end of that class, I feel lifted. I come to work for the therapy.”

It has been two years since the tragic disappearance and death of Thibault’s son, Justin Rhodes (also known as McKinnon-Blomme). However, through her work at the martial arts school, Thibault is proving that great hope can emerge from tragic situations.

Thibault last saw her son on September 24, 2014, the day when Rhodes went to a house party, got into a fight and never made it home.

“I went through six months of torture. I went through six months of him missing,” Thibault recalls.

Her son’s disappearance made national headlines, putting Thibault in the public eye during an incredibly painful time.

“Sometimes when I went in front of the media, I would be afraid that people wouldn’t see how desperate I was or how much I missed him [..]. I would get these moments when I just felt emotionless.”

Karleen Thibault smiles while wearing her official Studios Group Martial Arts jacket. Each day, Thibault consciously chooses to let the memory of her son live on at the studio. Photo by Sarah Green

On March 25, 2015, almost exactly six months after Rhodes went missing, his body was found in a tree close to where he was last seen after leaving the house party.

With each passing day, Thibault is forced to face the painful reality of her son’s death. It’s only now, two years later, that Thibault is beginning to open up about the details of her son’s final moments.

“He was brutally beaten with people watching, videotaping and taking pictures, with nobody doing anything,” says Thibault.

Tearfully, she explains that he committed suicide about 30 minutes later. “People bullied him, beat him, and broke him down so that he felt that he had no other option.”

Unknown to many, bullying played a massive role in Rhodes’ death. He fought a constant battle with depression. Thibault says she knew Rhodes had personal struggles, but she had no idea how bad it truly was.

“I am a mom. He is my child. How can I not blame myself? I don’t want for any other parent to have to go through that. I don’t want any other child to have to go through that.”

Despite the tragic end to Rhodes’ life, Thibault honors her son’s memory through describing the kind heart that he had.

Karleen Thibault helps a young student tie her belt around her martial arts uniform before her warm-up exercises. Not only is Studios Group Martial Arts a safe place for Thibault’s students, it is a place where she feels at home. Photo by Sarah Green

“He was very loving to everybody,” says Thibault. “I had so many people tell me that they were new to school and [Rhodes] went and said ‘hi’ to them. Or he would see somebody sitting on a bench and he would sit down and say, ‘It looks like you could use a friend.’”

While dealing with her grief, martial arts has been a crucial emotional outlet for Thibault. She expresses that there are moments when she doubts herself, but martial arts always empowers her.

“When it comes to all my emotions, kicking and hitting helps get out my aggression, anger and frustration,” says Thibault. “If nothing else, it’s given me confidence in myself.”

Thibault explains that in addition to her passion for taekwondo, the sense of community at Studios Group Martial Arts helps her deal with the pain of losing her son

“The people I’m surrounded with are incredible […] I can’t really imagine doing anything else or being surrounded by any other people.”

Hope Perri is a black belt instructor who has been involved with Studios Group Martial Arts for more than 13 years. For Perri, Thibault is not only a friend, she’s a second parent.

She describes the joy that Thibault brings to the studio despite her painful experience.

“[Thibault] is just so strong,” says Perri. “To go through what she’s been through and then to get up every day and come teach these kids and give them confidence. She’s given purpose to this unfortunate event.”

Karleen Thibault teaches many students at the Studios Group Martial Arts studio but for Thibault working with her students is a way of healing after losing her son, Justin Rhodes. Photo by Sarah Green

Smiling, Perri explains that Thibault will always have a special place in her heart. “I always joke with my parents that I’m going to have to invite [Thibault] to my wedding, no matter where I am in life.”

This sense of family can be found within every aspect of the martial arts school. Thibault believes that the memory of her son is what keeps this bond within the studio strong.

“We accept everybody, we’re kind to everybody, and we leave everybody feeling like they are important because Justin used to do that. That was Justin. He made you feel important,” says Thibault. “He is the one that drives us to do what we do, push hard as we do, and teach what we teach,” she adds.

“We accept everybody, we’re kind to everybody, and we leave everybody feeling like they are important because Justin used to do that. That was Justin. He made you feel important.” – Karleen Thibault

In response to Rhodes’ battle with bullying, Thibault and the other instructors at the studio heavily focus on self-esteem within their teaching.

“I need this environment to be a safe place for everybody,” says Thibault. “It’s a family, it’s open arms. We just want everybody to be comfortable and safe here and grow and develop into successful leaders and develop self-confidence.”

Susan Stratton, a student at Studios Group Martial Arts, recently received the Justin Rhodes Memorial Award for showing kindness, compassion and acceptance, much like Rhodes did during his life. She greatly admires the way Thibault actively chooses to celebrate her son’s life.

Stratton explains that when she walks into the studio, the atmosphere makes her feel like she is not just a student; she is part of something greater.

Through letting Rhodes’ memory live on at the studio, Thibault is raising much-needed awareness about the subject of bullying. “When we teach anti-bullying, we don’t teach how to physically fight back, we teach confidence,” Thibault explains. “Bullies are not going to target people who surround themselves with good people and who are confident in themselves.”

Ultimately, Thibault sees each day as a new opportunity to positively affect the lives of her students. Her heart is still on a journey of healing but the people surrounding her are making her journey a meaningful one.

“They really care,” says Thibault. “That’s what you need for support; the ones that care, the ones that don’t judge, the ones that are going to be there with you no matter what.”

sgreen@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Nora Cruickshank, ncruickshank@cjournal.ca