Donna Bergeron is a mild-mannered, petite, 66-year-old grandmother and retiree from the phone company during day, but she is also a sixth-degree black belt who teaches taekwondo by night.
“It’s a way of life,” said Bergeron, who also owns the Destrehan Taekwondo Academy or dojang where she offers her evening classes. “It teaches you more than just defending yourself – it’s discipline and structure. It gives you a sense of knowing who you are and where you’re going and that, in most situations, you can handle it.”
That’s what happened when Bergeron turned her ‘’petiteness” (just under 5 tall) into her superpower or driving force behind her desire to learn the martial arts.
“I’m just making them aware that they don’t have to be a victim,” she said. “They can get out of a situation if they were confronted by someone who wanted to take advantage of them.”
Bergeron said most people don’t seek the self-defense course until something happens.
Luckily, she didn’t get that kind of lesson earlier in life, but she did worry about it.
Anyone who’d known her younger would have seen an all-American girl working for the telephone company in New Jersey, but she also wanted to design clothing so she started going into New York City to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology. So many times she walked to Seventh Avenue to go to school, which wasn’t bad during the day, but there were times when she went home in the dark and it was intimidating.
She often worried about what she’d do if someone confronted or grabbed her. But it wasn’t until later, much later, after getting married, having children, moving to Louisiana and her then six-year-old asking to learn taekwondo, that she realized this was something she wanted to do, too.
When her job moved to the West Bank, she started taking classes in Kenner. This is when she discovered she’d found something that eased old frustrations from younger days when was called “short stuff” or “little one,” as well as eased those worries from New York City and, more importantly, began to feel a new sense of empowerment and confidence.
When Bergeron entered this world, she learned the theory of power based on reaction force, concentration, equilibrium, breath control, mass and speed. The martial arts are characterized by its emphasis on head kicks, jumping and spinning kicks, and fast kicking techniques. It has since translated into her offering self-defense classes to women.
Bergeron believed it so strongly she went on to earn a black belt and then even helped out on the side at the Kenner school, where the owner eventually asked her to run a school in Destrehan. She agreed and, when she retired from the phone company in 2007, decided it was time to own and operate her own school, also in Destrehan.
“I feel like I’ve accomplished what I wanted to do and I feel good about it,” she said. “I will continue as long as I can. I just want to keep living and being in great shape.”
Life is good for Bergeron.
Her business is the right size, a 2,200 square-foot school with about 45 students, which allows time for healthy work-life balance. She is a sixth-degree (Jitae) black belt with ninth being the highest belt form, but there are tenth-degree black belt masters.
A yearly event is approaching in Nashville, Tenn., to be with ninth-degree black belts and 10th-degree belts as advisors teaching Han Mu Do (traditional and modern Korean fighting).
“It’s a really great time to see the higher-ups and things we offer in the big field of martial arts, and to see all the students from all over the United States,” Bergeron said. “This tournament is called a ‘world event’ or tournament, but we also have classes and lessons that we take and you get instruction from seventh-, eighth-, ninth- and 10th-degree black belts. You’re bonding with people. It’s good for you to compete to see what your strengths and weaknesses are.”
With her own four- to 18-year-old students, Bergeron said she strives to teach them discipline and structure, which is what many parents ask for when they include taekwondo in their child’s daily regimen of baseball and/or football.
“You’d be surprised how many parents come in and say I need structure for my child,” she said. “The parents are looking for someone who can give their child structure and help in many areas of their development.”
At Destrehan Taekwondo Academy, Bergeron’s goal is to give each student something to build on mentally and physically, to have self-confidence and mindful living. It comes with instilling a code they live by: honor, courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self control, courage, community, strength, humility and knowledge. They also talk about good nutrition.
The martial arts require being physically and mentally fit, and Bergeron encourages it, too.
It’s worked for her in extending her life, as well as quality of living in being able to do things that other people her age are incapable of doing. When her husband retires, she will likely retire, too, but in the meantime she has reached a level of training where she wants to spread the word about how importance of taekwondo, a form of self defense that is gaining popularity.
When she looks at her life, her achievements as a sixth-degree black belt, teacher and dojang owner still going strong, her perspective makes sense: “Sometimes, it’s just mind over matter.”