Sensei, Owner of Oak Ridge Martial Arts Academy ‘Creates Space’ for Students of Martial Arts

Residents of the Oak Ridge area of Jefferson Township are likely aware of the Oak Ridge Martial Arts Academy (ORMAA). Maybe you remember the giant inflatable student kicking the sign along Berkshire Valley Road (he has since relocated). Those who know of the school but do not know Matt Van Wolput, the owner and sensei (lead instructor), have yet to meet a man who is both a product of and integral to the fabric of our community.

Matt, his wife Kat, and one of their dogs, Willow, relaxing in their backyard. (Photo by Christopher Bean)

Van Wolput grew up in the Cozy Lake section of town. He managed to get in less trouble than he might have deserved, but doesn’t describe himself as a bad kid. In fact, knowing him even a little, one can hardly imagine Van Wolput using the phrase “bad kid.” Jefferson had fewer recreational opportunities 35 years ago than it does today, but Van Wolput found joy in one particular activity: dirt bikes—specifically motocross. While on what (he assumed) was a promising future in that sport, a brutal crash left him hospitalized for 14 days. Though he had crashed before, this time was different. Climbing back on two wheels, he realized he no longer had the confidence to race like he was bulletproof. His days on the track ended.

Van Wolput’s mother, knowing that a teen with his energy and intensity could easily come to trouble without an organized outlet to channel himself, was thrilled that he found a new passion – that is, until she learned he would be studying karate. But not to stand in his way, she began taking him to classes at the All Okinawan Karate Institute on Route 15 in Lake Hopatcong. There he began a course of study under senseis Scott and Fred Carrell as well as Mike Pace, who remains his instructor to this day. Those were the first steps on a path of discipline, discovery, risk, and growth inside – and, more importantly, outside – of the dojo (learning hall or, literally, “place of the way”).

The youngest of three, Van Wolput was raised as a latchkey kid in a single-parent home. He graduated from Jefferson Township High School in 1995 and worked at odd jobs: NAPA Auto Parts, Crossroads Deli, and eventually a metal fabrication shop. When he was about 19, an older colleague put an idea in his head by saying, “Find a way to work for yourself.” Already a student of Goju Ryu karate, Van Wolput understood the concept of a sensei as one who has gone before or one further on the path. The thought of self-employment fired the young man’s imagination, and he soon began painting houses on weekends. He was good at it, knew well that office work was not for him, and painted for the next few years while nurturing the goal to work for himself. When the father of a woman he was dating stepped in to help him learn the ropes of money, finance, and loans, it was just the guidance he needed to open his own business.

Ending the youngest students session with a show of honor to Sensei Matt and the dojo. (Photo by Christopher Bean)

Working for Himself…and Others

Van Wolput built a successful business as a painter contractor. He worked mainly in the immediate area through referrals from friends and neighbors in town. He was successful, but not entirely fulfilled. His wife, Katherine (whom Van Wolput beamingly praises whenever her name comes up), never stopped reminding him of his dream to open a karate studio. When his opportunity became evident, he took the plunge. Putting his painting company on the line to secure a loan from the local Lakeland Bank, he opened his dojo on Berkshire Valley Road near the Gulf station. Six months later he expanded Oak Ridge Martial Arts Academy, and soon expanded again. As Van Wolput recalls, they did not really have the students to justify such a risk, but the community responded. Many of his former painting clients were thrilled to send their children to find their own outlet, discipline, structure, and confidence.

Sensei Matt, with a close friend, back when he first started the dojo. (Photo by Christopher Bean)

By creating a space for people of all ages, Van Wolput had truly become sensei; he had opened the path so others could follow. Today that path is broad and available to many. ORMAA works with children as young as four and has classes for youth, teens, and adults. Katherine runs women’s cardio fitness. They have developed an adaptive martial arts program for students from the Department for Persons with Disabilities, Rebecca’s Homestead (Rebecca Elmers), and West Milford High School.

Students are placed in groups and rotate through stations to receive more individualized hands-on training. (Photo by Christopher Bean)

Goju Ryu means the hard/soft way. The idea is that sometimes one must breathe in and be soft, receptive, flexible, and patient. Other times, it is correct to be hard, exhale, project strength from a solid foundation, and persevere. Sometimes you ride the dirt bike, and sometimes you find your path by falling off.

Van Wolput teaches his students to be receptive while in the dojo. That is where they learn and practice, where they are safe to explore their strengths and weaknesses. He encourages them to take their lessons and practice outside by serving the community in the Brown and Black Belt Project, being honorable and reliable, fulfilling their responsibilities, and taking on new challenges. He teaches them the importance of setting goals and the value of being open to change.

Community

When asked about the future of Jefferson, Van Wolput becomes quiet. He says he’d like to see kids running around outside, like the three children he and Kat raised here in town. Ironically, the sensei of discipline, respect, structure, and hard work believes that our community and society are becoming too rigid. Any student of Goju Ryu knows that in order to breathe in, one must breathe out…that to have strength, one must also be flexible…that to have a sense of self, one must have a sense of connection.

Van Wolput’s path has led him squarely into the heart of our community. Sometimes he forged ahead, sometimes he was led, and sometimes he was pushed (he’d thank his wife for that). Each of us has a path, and each of us has the opportunity to turn back and guide others; each of us is student and sensei if we are willing, and that is what makes a community.

Trying to sum up his path as a directionless young person navigating pitfalls and dead ends, Van Wolput becomes somber. His eyes glisten as he recalls the moments, some overt and some subtle, when Jefferson Township was there for him and his mother. Today he is grateful for the many unseen hands that helped carry him forward. “To look back and see that … if I didn’t have community pulling for me, I would have gone in a completely different direction. That’s why I want to give back today.”

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