Plymouth program helps children test safety skills before facing dangerous situations

Program teaches decision-making, physical skills to children

By Meaghan St Pierre - Producer

PLYMOUTH, Mich. - "Thumbs up if you're ready," Tanya Panizzo said to her student, Olivia Weiss.

Weiss, 9, is about to face the "Red Man," another instructor at Fighting Spirit Personal Safety in Plymouth.

The safety drill marks the end to her third time participating in the radKIDS program.

"I was nervous but really excited," Weiss said.

The program radKIDS is a personal empowerment and safety education program that teaches decision-making and physical skills to help children escape violence.

"Because in life, some people are bad and you'll have to learn how to handle those people," said 9-year-old Nora Kolozsvary.

At Fighting Spirit Personal Safety in Plymouth, students are taking weeklong summer sessions that end with them putting their safety skills into action.

"They've been learning how to use their hands and their feet, as well as their voice. To use a very strong voice, to keep people away from them," said Panizzo, the owner of Fighting Spirit Personal Safety.

On the last day, students participate in a real-life scenario, practicing what they would do if they really faced a dangerous situation.

"They're going to put those skills to the test, walk down a sidewalk, one of our other coaches is going to be dressed in a padded suit, so that the kids can hit him full force. They can see how capable they can be of defending themselves. And then they're going to run to the safe zone, they're going to practice their verbal skills by dialing 911 and answering questions from an adult," Panizzo said.

The "Red Man" is Russell Gale, another instructor helping teach the program.

Kelsey Ruffner, 10, is taking the class for the first time.

"It was really fun just fighting him," Ruffner said. "It's fun to get to know all your physical skills and, like, being prepared."

Panizzo said in safety training, the only difference between reacting and responding is training. The scenario spooks the kids a little bit, lets them have fun, their heart rate is up and she says they have to follow through and do the skills they learned and that's how they truly develop them.

"It's one thing to practice dialing 911 when you're sitting on the sofa looking at the numbers and you feel safe," Panizzo said. "But when you're scared and your heart rate is elevated and you're in a somewhat of a stress mode, a lot of those skills go out the window if they are not practiced."

During the weeklong program, students learn how to make good decisions on a variety of topics. They learn through activities and Panizzo says they are having a lot of fun.

"They're getting stickers, they're laughing," Panizzo said. "It's a great way for them to learn those valuable life skills without being scared."

Panizzo said teaching radKIDS is her passion and has been since she had her daughter 12 years ago. 

"I'm a survivor of an assault myself in my teenage years. I never told an adult. I didn't know how to tell, that's also a part of the program here today. How do we tell adults what has happened or what has made us afraid?" Panizzo said.

Panizzo said when she thought about her daughter keeping a secret like that from her, she knew she had to do something.

For parents, Panizzo says a program like this can be peace of mind.

She said while there is no guarantee something bad won't happen, it gives parents the peace of mind knowing "I did everything that I could to give them options for safety."

Sarab Weiss, Olivia's mom, watched with pride as her daughter took on the "Red Man" this time. Seeing her daughter participate in the program since she was 6, she witnessed her daughter find her voice and strength to face a dangerous situation.

"I was a little more stressed out the first couple of times. Today, it was really pride because I kind of got to see it full circle, see her really step into her own and defend herself," she said.

Panizzo said they cover a lot of issues during the program including what to do when you find a gun, dealing with bullies and even vaping, depending on the age group. 

She offers programs for children ages 5-7 and 8-12. For more information, click here.

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