Custer County students learn to fend off harm

STAR PHOTOS/Steve Allison Carla Verbsky, left, and Dennis Forleo, give a group of Custer County District High School freshmen some lessons in self-defense on March 20.
Carla Verbsky, left, and Dennis Forleo demonstrate self-defense moves to Custer County students on March 20.

Carla Verbsky, president and founder of G.R.E.A.T. (Girls Ready Empowered And Trained) Self-Defense, and Dennis Forleo, of Shepherd-Warrior Martial Arts, spent last Monday giving presentations to students at Custer County District High School. Each high-energy program was illustrated with slides and physical demonstrations.

Their visit to CCDHS was arranged by Diana Seleg, victim advocate/outreach coordinator with the Miles City office of Custer Network Against Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault (CNADA), who had seen news coverage of Verbsky’s and Forleo’s presentations.

Seleg aquired a $1,000 grant to bring the pair to Miles City. Their visit was part of CNADA’s Teen Dating Violence and Prevention Awareness activities.

CNADA Director Caroline Fleming added: “The timing for the presentation was perfect. February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month and April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so right between the two was a good time to bring this presentation to Miles City.”

Verbsky said she and Forleo start with demonstrations of what could happen in various situations and some basic self-defense martial arts moves to get out of the situations. After some practice moves and warm-up exercises, Verbsky and Forleo sat the teens down and started their slide program.

Throughout the program, the two showed students the bad aspects of fighting to solve a problem and urged them to behave assertively, not aggressively or passively. Good self-esteem and positive body language help an individual appear assertive.

“Your body is just like a weapon,” said Verbsky. She explained that a person can use their fists (punching), feet (kicking) and even mouth (words)‚ to protect himself or herself in a life-threatening situation.

“Could you kick and punch someone to protect yourself and your feelings? Kicking and punching is a BIG DEAL. It hurts, it harms, it is just like a weapon,” said Verbsky.

She explained that a situation could happen in the time it takes to snap your fingers. Verbsky added that school is a student’s world and it is supposed to be a safe place, but for some it may not be that way anymore.

She explained that words and thoughts also can be weapons. People armed with these negative “weapons” can steal a person’s happiness. When an individual is told to “drop your weapons” that means negative words and thoughts are to be dropped, too.

Forleo said that physical skills are to be used in life-threatening situations. They are never to be used at school and never to be used against friends.

He added that physical and emotional harm can lead to suicide. “Some people just can’t take it anymore,” he said. “Suicide is the No. 1 cause of preventable death in youths 10 to 14 years of age.”

He explained that the solution must be to stand together. “Don’t be a bystander, be an upstander,” he said. “Stop hurting each other.”

“You are what you believe,” he continued. “Any outcome in our lives is mostly determined by spirit and not by any physical technique. Self-defense is the ability to protect yourself against anything or anyone.”

Forleo asked the students to focus on building character. “The character skills that best reflect self-defense are respect, humility and integrity,” he said.

He explained that when trying to resolve conflict, most people do it wrong. They are passive, which is a bully magnet, or aggressive, which is gas on fire. 

“These two patterns of behavior will invite violence into a life,” he said. “The third pattern is to be assertive. This is a behavior pattern of self-worth.” 

He added that the strongs of assertiveness are strong feet, strong hands, strong eyes and strong voice.

To demonstrate a way to stop someone approaching to do harm, Verbsky opened her hands in a stop position with her palms facing the attacker (played by Forleo), and using a strong voice in short sound bites said “stop,” “back off,” “leave now” in a commanding tone and escalating her voice each time she spoke. While doing this, she picked a spot on her attacker’s neck on which to focus her eyes.

“Any reasonable person would back off,” said Forleo. “However, if the person is a psychopath and keeps coming, run, or if you can’t get away, defend yourself with everything you have.”

The students then practiced some of the basic fist punching and kicking moves demonstrated by Verbsky and Forleo earlier in the presentation with each other, with the individual receiving the punches and kicks using protective gear.

Each hour-long session with students ended with photos being taken of the group with Verbsky and Forleo.

“Our program is about conflict resolution and creative ways to resolve problems,” said Forleo.

“We’re faith-based,” said Verbsky. “Dennis’ studio is faith based, showing the spiritual connection with martial arts.”

G.R.E.A.T. Self-Defense and Shepherd-Warrior Martial Arts teamed up to give presentations after Verbsky and Forleo met for coffee one day. 

“Carla had been on her own about six months,” said Forleo. “We got connected through a mutual acquaintance. We met for coffee and realized we were doing similar things. She was going into schools and I have a martial arts studio. I knew within two minutes of sitting down and talking to her that we should start working together.”

CCDHS was the 22nd school where the two have made presentations.

The two also do sessions for adults, college students and separate sessions for women and men. In addition, they have a session that focuses on domestic abuse. 

Verbsky explained that they try to inspire and empower people to accept and respect each other and themselves through the principles and non-violent aspects of martial arts. She added that character traits of self-esteem, confidence, courage, self-control and integrity are the most important and meaningful skills that define the quality of our lives, and we have them within ourselves.

More information about their programs is available at or the G.R.E.A.T. Facebook page.