When Monique Washington-Jones was growing up near Richmond, Va., in the small town of Charles City, she and her younger sister took karate lessons from their father, who ran a coed martial arts school known across the state.
There are family photos of her at age 2 holding nunchucks — a weapon that consists of a pair of hardwood sticks joined by a rope or chain — but her formal training didn’t begin until she was 10.
“The woman I am today is a direct reflection of my martial arts training,” she says of that family bonding experience. “Karate is a challenging sport, and it pushes you to be disciplined.”
But when she decided in 2007 to open her own dojo, which is Japanese for training place, the Columbia resident felt compelled to “do something to make my school stand out.”
Colleagues and parents of students say she has achieved that goal and much, much more.
Going against the stream of advice she encountered, the karate master (who was then Monique Washington) opened WKD Karate 4 Girls, an all-girls school that operates from the Phelps Luck Community Center. The initials in the name stand for Washington’s Karate Dojo.
“I felt pretty passionate about it, and so I followed my gut,” says Washington-Jones, now 39 and a fifth-degree black belt. “If I set my mind to something, then I’m going to do it.”
Naysayers — who initially included her father, grand master Douglas Washington — had pointed out that she would be leaving money on the table by not training boys in a male-dominated sport, and that her school would not be considered a traditional one.
While she concedes the first point, she fiercely debates the second and defends her decision to offer something rare.
“My father wasn’t negative, but he didn’t understand. He would ask, ‘If it’s not wrong, why change it?’ ” she recalls.
In the end, he gave her his blessing after she drove home the point that the training would be “just as traditional and just as hard” and only the classes’ gender makeup would be different.
While there are no statistics on the number of all-girls karate schools, only two others — in Pennsylvania and New York — popped up in an Internet search.
What made an all-girls karate school a worthwhile goal in her mind was her firsthand observation that girls are not always comfortable around boys, especially when they enter puberty and experience body changes, and when they start liking the opposite sex.
But mostly, her goals focus on female empowerment, strength and confidence — a vision that has resonated with her students, who range in age from 3 to 61.
Lisa Boland loved what Washington-Jones personified so much that she and her husband, James, wanted their two young daughters to continue their self-defense lessons with Washington-Jones even after the family moved last summer from Columbia to Ashburn, Va.
“It’s not just about it being all-female. It’s about her as an instructor,” Boland says.
Every Thursday, Boland picks the girls up after school, and they make the 1- to 1½-hour trip to Howard County, first bypassing Columbia to eat dinner at her mother’s house in northern Maryland or to visit friends. Then the sisters take two lessons back-to-back, change into their pajamas, and the trio returns home.
“We wanted our girls to learn to protect themselves and to have other female role models to look up to,” Boland says of Kayla, 7, and Isabella, 6, who each started lessons at age 4. “Monique is a stable constant in their lives.”
While WKD Karate 4 Girls now reaches between 300 and 500 students a year through classes, after-school programs and summer camps, the school began as a part-time effort with just four girls. Currently, 100 girls take weekly lessons.
In 2010, life threw Washington-Jones a curveball. She was suddenly laid off from her full-time job as a corporate recruiter, just one month after marrying David Jones, a real estate broker.
“It was totally unexpected, and it was devastating,” she says. She contacted her husband, a former Marine, in tears and got life-changing advice.
“He said, ‘You have one day to cry. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about what you’re going to do,’ ” she recalls. The next day he advised her to make the school her full-time job.
“I knew I had to make it my business and there could be no looking back,” says the stepmother of two.
Nowadays, she still considers herself to be “an entrepreneur-in-training” and has set her sights this year on finding a space to lease that she doesn’t have to share. She’s already accomplished her goal of expansion by opening a satellite location in Catonsville.
She also is co-founder and president of WIMA (Women in the Martial Arts), and a member of the World Tae Kwon Do Federation.
But for Washington-Jones, financial security is just one measurement of success.
“Parents like that their girls have a positive role model and that their daughters have built trust in me,” she says.
When one of her students was getting ready to attend her high school prom with a boy last spring, the girl’s parents asked the instructor to have “the talk” with her.
“They said, ‘You can talk about sex, drugs or rock ’n’ roll,’ ” she says, laughing at the memory. “I was a little nervous, but that’s what happens — I am always the messenger.”
She also instills in her girls the importance of giving back to the local community. The students hand out water bottles at 5K races organized by Girls on the Run; donate money to Cancer Support Foundation; and collect toiletries for HopeWorks, the county’s domestic violence center.
Subira Folami, a martial arts instructor in Baltimore, says her friend and colleague has a special rapport with her students.
“Monique is fierce, and her students know it,” Folami says. “She makes them fight and then gives them a hug. She has this great balance of yin and yang.”
What makes it all so special is that it’s a two-way street, Washington-Jones says.
“I get as much out of this as they do,” she says. “I love seeing them evolve.”
Off the Clock with Monique Washington-Jones
Outside her dojo, she enjoys: Dining out with her husband.
Favorite book: The Bible
Favorite movie: “Carlito’s Way.” “It’s an old-school gangster movie with a great soundtrack, and I’m a huge Al Pacino fan. I’ve seen every movie [he’s made] and own every movie.”
Who inspires her: Her students
Little-known fact: ”I have a sweet tooth. I especially love dark chocolate with sea salt.”
Hobby: “I attempt to do yoga, with an emphasis on “attempt.’ “