This ‘Little Mermaid’ Star Was Living a Dream. Then Racist Commenters Tried to Tear Her Down.

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America, August 25, 2017 

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Diana Huey stars as Ariel in “The Little Mermaid.” Tracy Martin / Mark & Tracy Photography

Singing “Part of Your World” as Ariel under a sea of bright lights was a dream come true for actress Diana Huey.

But it was also a dream Huey wasn’t sure she’d accomplish even when she first auditioned for a touring production of “The Little Mermaid” musical in April 2016.

“I had gone in with very little thoughts that I would book the job because I didn’t think they would cast an Asian girl as Ariel for such a long touring contract,” Huey told NBC News about her New York audition.

“Looking back at that now, it makes me sad that I had put that doubt on myself,” she added. “I typecast myself right out of a job in my head because of the way I look, not because I didn’t think that I could perform the job.”

The show opened for a two-month engagement in Seattle in November 2016 before later touring across the United States, with stops in Atlanta and Orlando among other cities, Huey said. After a two-month break, it departed on the second part of its tour, which is scheduled to run until November and is produced by theater companies Pittsburgh CLO and Kansas City Starlight.

But touring the U.S. hasn’t been without its share of bumps in the road.

After Huey’s photo was released during a round of publicity in October 2016, she came across a slew of negative social media comments criticizing the show’s casting, her appearance, and her singing abilities, she said. At the time, she forced herself to ignore the comments; she stopped reading them and focused her energy on the upcoming tour.

“I was so happy and I eventually forgot that for some people, I was this controversial and upsetting issue,” Huey said.

But after a fellow cast member posted a promotional video of their Memphis stop in July, Huey couldn’t help but read the new social media comments that surfaced.

“People were upset that I didn’t look like Ariel, upset that they didn’t like my voice and everything,” she said.

Huey first recounted the social media criticism she received as Ariel in an interview with The Buffalo News newspaper.

The article was initially going to be a feature about the show and her role as an iconic character, Huey said. But the interview shifted into conversations about race and then Huey started talking about her recent experience on social media.

After sharing a link to the Buffalo News interview on her personal Facebook page, Huey put out a statement, which has been shared more than 600 times.

“No one should feel like they aren’t enough because of the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes or any factor outside of WHO THEY ARE,” she wrote. “And as I go out on the road city to city as an Asian American playing Ariel, I hope that it will inspire the next person who is out there auditioning for something to believe that THEY can be cast in a role based on their work and their talents.”

A ‘dream come true’

As early as the age of four, Huey knew she wanted to be on stage. During family holidays, she’d rummage through her mom’s dresser, put on makeup, and wrap a pink feather boa around herself.

“If I had known when I was a little girl watching ‘The Little Mermaid,’ like someday I’d wear Ariel’s pink ballroom gown, I would have exploded,” said Huey, adding that she is a “huge Disney nerd.

“I have been a huge Alan Menken fan my entire life and getting to now sing his music is a complete dream come true,” Huey said, referring to the Oscar-winning Disney composer. “Disney has been a huge influence in my life.”

Born in Japan and raised as an adoptee in a multicultural household in Seattle, Huey moved to New York three and a half years ago to expand her professional acting career. Huey said one of the reasons she made the move was because she began to feel boxed in for certain acting roles.

“When I was working in Seattle at the time, there weren’t a lot of Asian-American actors or actresses so I would always be at any call when they were calling for someone ethnic,” Huey said. “If the character was not white, I would always be called in for that. Obviously if it was an Asian call, I’d be called for that.”

More than ‘an actor playing Ariel’

Despite the negative comments she initially received online, Huey said the experience has actually given her a better understanding of the character of Ariel. While singing “Part of Your World” during a recent sound check, she said the song felt empowering and relatable.

She added that the experience has given her a better understanding of herself.

“I didn’t just feel like an actor playing Ariel singing these thoughts of hers, but that I was just me — wanting to be in world where I wasn’t being judged or hurt. It was really real,” Huey said.

“The way that it is in the show, Ariel is fighting to belong in her world and fighting to be accepted and fighting to stick up for herself, and I was like, ‘this is way too real right now,’” she added.

Since discussing the negative comments, Huey has received an outpouring of support from people who appreciated her taking a stand and using her experience to continue the dialogue surrounding diversity in theater, she said.

Witnessing the impact of her performance on the Asian-American community, particularly children, has also been empowering and rewarding, she added.

“When I see a little Asian girl watching the show, it’s just it’s really powerful,” she said. “It’s a very cool feeling, and it’s something I didn’t think would happen for me.”

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‘Masala Runner’ Mohan Iyer Sets His Sights on 100th Marathon

Monica Luhar for NBC News, August 4, 2017

For eight years before he began his journey as a recreational marathoner, Mohan Iyer had a toxic habit of eating junk food in front of the TV after stressful days at work as an information technology consultant.

“I was really torn, and I kind of ate every junk food conceivable,” Iyer told NBC News. “And that kind of obviously led to some health issues: My cholesterol went through the roof, and when I went to India, I was 250 pounds — very obese.”

After moving his family to Texas from the United Kingdom in 1995, Iyer began suffering from sinus headaches due to allergies, he said. In an effort to get them to stop, he visited a doctor who put him on blood pressure and cholesterol medications. He also tried multiple diets to address his sudden weight gain.

But Iyer knew he had to do more than just take medicine — he also had to make major lifestyle changes.

It wasn’t until he relocated his family again to California in 2008 that Iyer began to take up an interest in running, determined to get rid of the “couch potato habit” after concern and encouragement from his wife and two sons.

“All my allergy issues and sinus headache went away as mysteriously as they started … and I haven’t stopped running since then,” he said.

Before he started running, Mohan Iyer weighed up to 250 pounds, he said. Here, he dances at his son’s wedding. Courtesy of Mohan Iyer

That year, Iyer participated in his first 5k run in Huntington Beach, California, on Super Bowl Sunday, falling in love with the rush of endorphins. Two years later, Iyer ran his first marathon in Chicago with his family and friends cheering him on.

So far, Iyer — who calls himself the “Masala Runner” and documents his travels online — has participated in a total of 135 races and plans to complete his 100th marathon this October in his adopted home state of Illinois.

The recreational marathoner said he has run in all 50 states, all 7 continents, and at least 24 countries (his goal is to run in at least 50 countries). Since 2010, Iyer has run at least one marathon per month, he noted.

Mohan Iyer after running the Boston Marathon. He said it was one of the most emotional finishes in his marathon career. Courtesy of Mohan Iyer

Since posting his marathon journey on social media, Iyer said colleagues and friends in the South Asian community have told him they were inspired to lead healthier lifestyles, with many asking him for advice on travel and marathon destinations and how to escape jet lag.

“I have seen people change their lifestyles and have affected at least a few of my colleagues to really start running,” he said.

Those lifestyle changes could be critical, as South Asian Americans are at higher risk for cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, according to a 2016 study by the University of California, San Francisco. South Asians have “the highest death rate” from heart disease compared to other ethnic groups in the U.S., the study found, and “more than 60 percent of cardiovascular disease patients around the world are of South Asian descent.”

When Iyer runs in smaller cities or outside of large metropolitan areas, the experience can sometimes be different and isolating, as he often realizes he is the only South Asian man running, he said.

Having lived only in large metropolitan areas like Chicago and L.A., Iyer said he didn’t know what to expect when he expanded his running destinations into smaller towns.

Mohan Iyer running a race in the Swiss Alps. Courtesy of Mohan Iyer

“The experience has been mixed with some small towns rolling out the red carpet for runners and embracing us regardless of how we looked or where we came from, while I have also received somewhat puzzled and baffled looks from bystanders in a couple of very small towns,” he said.

But most of the time, Iyer said he gets pumped up by the excitement from the running community and people cheering him on from the sidelines. In the end, it’s that resilience and love that gets him through a tough marathon, he said.

“The running community though is very well-knit and no one cares about nor discusses politics or ethnicity,” Iyer said. “The only race we care about is the one we run…not the one we belong to.”

Iyer added that he’s not the same person he was eight years ago and attributes the positive changes in his self to running and the people he’s met across the world.

“This marathon journey has taught me to stay unperturbed during stressful periods at work and cope with tough challenges with relative calmness, and helped earn friends from several corners of the country and the world,” he said.

Blogilates Founder Cassey Ho’s New Podcast Spotlights Real-Life ‘Sheroes’

Monica Luhar for NBC News, July 27, 2017 

LOS ANGELES — Many of Cassey Ho’s fans know her as the bubbly fitness instructor whose series of online workout videos have attracted millions of viewers worldwide.

But lately, the 30-year-old Los Angeles-based creator of “POP Pilates” has been testing out microphones and going over scripts in her headquarters’ podcast room, working on a project that Ho said will show a different side of her.

“A lot of people see me as a fitness instructor due to which obviously I am,” Ho told NBC News. “But there’s this entrepreneur behind it all that runs five different brands.”

With more than 3.8 million subscribers on her YouTube channel, “Blogilates,” Ho is now producing a podcast, dubbed “The Sheroic Podcast,” which she started in June with friend Lisa Bilyeu, co-founder of Quest Nutrition.

The program focuses on female empowerment, living your best life, and learning from real-life superheroes, or “Sheroes,” according to Ho. Early episodes include “Turning Jealousy into Admiration and Hate into Inspiration” and “Hate Your Body? Here’s Why You Shouldn’t.”

“The more we talk about it, the more normal it becomes and the less ashamed we have to be about certain things,” Ho said. “I think it’s important to talk about that.”

Ho, an avid listener to podcasts, said she wanted to start one herself because she felt that they allow for longer, more in-depth conversations.

“I’m really excited I get to do that with Lisa and we both challenge each other,” she said. “Sometimes we agree on everything, sometimes we don’t agree. We’re super raw and open about that.”

The pair has worked on the show’s concept together since the beginning, including emailing back and forth about possible titles.

“We are both into comics and animation and things and so Lisa was like, ‘what do you think about calling it the Sheroics or something?’ And we narrowed it down to ‘The Sheroic Podcast,’” said Ho, who drew the podcast’s logo, which includes a heel and a red cape.

”You wear heels when you feel powerful and in charge and so I wanted the heel to be in it, and a cape for a hero, so I thought: why don’t we integrate both those things?” she said.

The Birth of Blogilates

Starting a new project is second nature for Ho, who said she has been an entrepreneur and marketer as early as middle school, when she would sell things that she made.

Co-hosts of the Sheroic Podcast: Lisa Bilyeu (left) and Cassey Ho.
Co-hosts of the Sheroic Podcast: Lisa Bilyeu (left) and Cassey Ho. Courtesy of Blogilates

“I think the most important thing is that I work hard for everything that I want. I never ask for it,” Ho said.

After college, Ho moved from Los Angeles to Boston to work as a fashion buyer. Leaving Los Angeles meant she was also leaving her job as a fitness instructor, where in 2007 she had developed “POP Pilates,” a “dance-on-the-mat-type” program.

Her students were sad to see her leave, she said, and at their request, Ho uploaded a 10-minute exercise video on her YouTube channel.

When the video racked up thousands of views in just a few days, Ho decided to quit her new job and stepped up her Pilates game, teaching 12 times a week to make ends meet at sports clubs and gyms in the area, she said.

“I was serious about going hard and going big,” Ho said.

When her class sizes began to grow and requests for more POP Pilates-related workouts continued to rise, she knew she had to keep going.

Ho’s POP Pilates empire has grown into a fitness program that has been taught at 24 Hour Fitness locations in the U.S since 2015. She also recently launched her own line of activewear called POPFLEX.

Today, Ho estimates there are 3,000 certified POP Pilates instructors that teach on any given month.

The Power of YouTube

For Ho, YouTube has also played a tremendous role in her success by helping break down barriers of entry in entertainment.

“I am Asian American; I am a girl; and I don’t have six pack abs,” Ho said. “I don’t look like your typical fitness instructor that you see on DVDs or magazine covers.”

“When you allow audiences to choose who really resonates with them, you can really see what makes an impact,” Ho added. “Because the audience is able to choose, that’s why Blogilates became what it is today.”

Ho said that while her YouTube channel has always seen gradual growth, the goal behind Blogilates has always been to connect more people through fitness and help forge friendships and relationships beyond the virtual space.

“Blogilates started online, but my goal is to take everything offline, or to start turning it offline because when we’re stuck on our phones all the time. Yes, we can feel like you’re part of the community when you’re online, but nothing can replace true, real life relationships, having those real conversations, seeing people,” she said.

This Wheelchair Dance Company Is ‘Redefining Disability and Reinventing Inclusion’ 

Monica Luhar for NBC News, November 2016 

Marisa Hamamoto moved swiftly across the dance floor as she practiced a series of high-energy jumps and acrobatic movements during a contemporary dance class in Tokyo in 2006.

But within minutes, her life as a dancer was put on hold when she was hit by a chilling numbness that took over her body. One moment, she felt as though she were flying, and the next, she found herself losing all sensation.

“In the middle of all of that, I started to feel my elbows tingle and then a couple minutes later, I collapsed onto the floor,” Hamamoto told NBC News. “I couldn’t move my arms and legs.”

Hamamoto, then 24 and a senior at Keio University, was rushed to the hospital and later diagnosed with a spinal cord infarction — a stroke in the spinal cord or an artery that supplies it — which left her paralyzed from the neck down. Doctors told her she would probably never walk or dance again.

During her physical therapy and rehabilitation, Hamamoto incorporated her own dance training into her recovery instead of sticking to a sheet of plain exercises that were given to her, she said.

“Instead of lifting my knees, I would hum a song and lift it into a rhythm,” Hamamoto said. “Every single tiny movement I would feel, I would try to dance. I literally danced my therapy and made it into my own dance class.”

Two months later, Hamamoto walked out of the hospital, ready to perform again, but after her paralysis, she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, she said, and any time she felt a tingle in her body, she’d have reoccurring nightmares and immense anxiety.

“I lived in a lot of trauma,” she said.

After the paralysis, Hamamoto feared going to a dance studio. She had faced her share of rejection as a dancer for many years, and the paralysis felt like another door that had closed on her.

“The more my body moved, the more I became scared that the paralysis was going to happen again,” Hamamoto said.

RELATED: ‘Dances Of Transformation’: Ananya Dance Theatre Finds Justice Through Movement

Raised in Irvine, California, Hamamoto was first exposed to dance at the age of six. Growing up, Hamamoto couldn’t help but feel different. She recalls one day in elementary school when she brought sushi and rice to school, only to be teased by her fellow classmates for her lunch choices and the shape of her eyes.

“Being the only Asian-American kid in class, I was also teased for being a little chubby so somehow the dancing…when I danced, I almost felt like I can forget all of that,” She said. “Whenever I danced, I felt beautiful. I felt free. I felt powerful.”

At age 12, Hamamoto — whose father is from Honolulu and mother is from Japan — had her heart set on becoming a professional ballerina after being inspired by a ballet performance at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. She shoved the criticisms aside and forged her own path.

“Everything about that performance — from the dancers, to the stage set, to the costumes, to just the whole being on stage under the lights — everything about it, I just fell in love and wanted to be up there myself,” she said.

But not everyone was supportive of her decision to become a professional ballerina.

“Even though I worked really hard, and got scholarships to top ballet schools, I was still being told by my dance teachers I didn’t have what it took to be a ballerina,” she said.

But those criticisms and doubts only fueled Hamamoto’s dreams of becoming a professional dancer. Three and a half years after her paralysis, dance found its way back into Hamamoto’s life. In 2010, she attended a New Year’s party in Japan, where she was first exposed to partner dancing and noticed the transformative effect it had on dancers and non-dancers alike.

“Everything I ever wanted in dancing was in a ballroom — something about connecting with another partner was something beautiful,” she said.

Several months later, Hamamoto received an apprenticeship at one of the best ballroom dance schools in Japan, she said.

She moved back to California in 2011, and in 2012 made her way to Los Angeles, where she was determined to grow as a professional dancer and share her love for ballroom with others. Two years later, Hamamoto discovered wheelchair ballroom dancing, which she found was underdeveloped. She felt compelled to take action and enhance it, in part due to her own paralysis, she said.

“I saw that there was an underserved population with people with disabilities and especially paralyzed from the waist down, neck down, that didn’t have opportunity to go to dance class,” she said. “Because I’ve had so many doors close on me as a dancer, I decided to open it up for others.”

Determined to create a more inclusive and diverse space, Hamamoto launched Infinite Flow — a professional wheelchair dance company with studios in Studio City and Sherman Oaks, California that aims to change perceptions on disability and show what inclusion in dance and everyday life can look like — in 2015.

“I truly believe that every single person has a dancer inside of them and each person deserves to find that dancer,” she said. “I think we can create a better world through accepting and celebrating each other’s differences.”

RELATED: On Stage and With Pageants, Jennifer Kumiyama Is Improving Life for People With Disabilities

Hamamoto said Infinite Flow is the first professional wheelchair ballroom dance company in the nation, though she notes the existence of other physically integrated dance companies that focus more on contemporary dance.

“Infinite Flow is not about wheelchair users, it’s about everyone,” she said.

Infinite Flow incorporates six main programs, including a professional dance troupe created to change society’s perceptions on disability. Other programs include “Infinite Flow Kids” and adult wheelchair dance classes. Hamamoto has also spearheaded a new project called Infinite Inclusion, which centers on community events that celebrate diversity and dance.

Hamamoto said she has received calls from people around the world who have shared concerns about the lack of inclusive dance classes in their local communities. She recalled the story of a mother who struggled to find a dance studio that would enroll her daughter, who was in a wheelchair.

Once paralyzed from the neck down, Marisa Hamamoto founded Infinite Flow, a professional dance wheelchair company that aims to create a space for diversity and inclusion. Photo by Tony Cordell

“The mother wanted her [daughter] to be in a group class, but no one would take her seriously,” she said.

While Infinite Flow is still in its beginning stages, Hamamoto acknowledges the stigma that still exists within the dance community and beyond.

“People don’t take the work seriously,” she said.”I still run across the same issue in my community. I think people still look down on what we do.”

Hamamoto said that ballroom dancing healed her at a time when she had lost all hope. She equally hopes that Infinite Flow will help others dance their way through life’s obstacles, too.

“For me, so many doors had closed up on me as a dancer and I still feel like I’m trying to find the dancer inside of me,” she said. “I feel like it is almost like my mission to help open doors for others. I’m seeing barriers being broken in front of my face all the time.”

Nonprofits Search for Asian-American Foster Parents to Fill Culture, Language Needs

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America, Published July 24, 2017 

LOS ANGELES — When he was a teenager, Wilson Sun bounced around about half a dozen foster homes in Los Angeles County, he told NBC News.

In many of the homes, he felt like he was an outcast and not treated as a member of the family, he said. A few times, he shoplifted from malls and grocery stores because his foster families didn’t provide him with a large enough allowance, he added.

Wilson Sun, sharing his experience as a former foster youth at the Asian Foster Family Initiative March 2017 info session. Courtesy of APCTC

It wasn’t until he was matched with Spencer Sun through Sun’s involvement with the nonprofit Chinatown Service Center that Wilson Sun felt he had found a parent that truly cared for him. Wilson Sun ended up living with his former foster parent through college and, after receiving a full scholarship to study accounting, changed his name to “Sun” when he got married.

“To be a parent or foster parent you have to have a lot of perseverance and patience because at the end of the day you’re going to see both the good and ugly of the foster kids too,” Sun, now 27, told NBC News. “[Spencer Sun] was the first parent that I felt was genuine that provided unconditional love and it was truly sincere. Spencer has done so much for me. He was the one who pushed me to want more in life.”

Nonprofits in Los Angeles are looking for more Asian-American foster parents like Spencer Sun to serve the county’s foster children with a particular focus on language ability and cultural understanding.

More than 18,000 children in LA County are in foster care, according to Neil Zanville, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Of those children, approximately 1.8 percent is Asian American and Pacific Islander, Zanville noted.

But despite that, the number of Asian-American foster families is limited, according to LA-based nonprofit Korean American Family Services (KFAM), which recruits and trains foster families among providing other services.

“In our mind, it might not be a large percentage, but 600 to 800 [Asian-American and Pacific Islander] foster kids is a good number of kids who could really benefit from having a family that understands their cultural needs,” KFAM executive director Connie Chung Joe told NBC News.

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Three years ago, the organization struggled to find even one licensed foster care parent of Korean descent in Los Angeles and Orange Counties after meeting with community members who were concerned that kids were being put in households that struggled with language and cultural barriers.

“When we asked around, there were none in the Cambodian, Chinese, or other communities, either,” Chung Joe said.

Karen Lim, program director at Special Service for Groups’ Asian Pacific Counseling and Treatment Centers (APCTC), a nonprofit which partners with KFAM, noted that there are a significant number of Chinese kids who are removed from their homes due to alleged abuse and neglect , but very few Chinese-speaking families who can take them in.

“Many of these Chinese kids are new immigrants, so it’s even more traumatic that they are placed in non-Chinese speaking homes, or non-Asian foster homes,” Lim told NBC News.

The lack of licensed Asian-American foster care parents and common misconceptions about the process to become one prompted KFAM to begin recruiting efforts.

In January 2014, the organization launched the Korean Foster Family Initiative. In December 2015, KFAM expanded its recruiting efforts into the Chinese community, partnering with APCTC and Chinatown Service Center, and rebranded the program as the Asian American Foster Family Initiative.

In December 2016, KFAM became a licensed foster family agency, allowing the organization to train and directly approve and certify foster families, Chung Joe said.

Since 2014, KFAM has been able to recruit 39 foster parents of Korean descent, according to Chung Joe, and the organization’s first group of foster families of Chinese descent is approaching approval.

The initiative’s current focus is finding potential Filipino foster parents, as they comprise the largest population of Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) foster kids in LA County, Chung Joe said.

“We’ve also been in discussion with Cambodian and South Asian [community-based organizations] who are asking if they can partner with us to expand into their communities,” she added.

On July 30, the Asian American Foster Family Initiative is scheduled host an information session, “How to Become a Resource/Foster Parent,” which is expected to include testimonies from Spencer and Wilson Sun.

“There’s not that many Asian-Americans that will come out to speak, let alone have a story similar to mine’s where despite everything, you pulled through and have a happy ending which is not common in foster care families,” Wilson Sun said. “Despite losing parents, you will find someone that truly loves you.”

Spencer Sun told NBC News that his faith played a role in deciding to become a foster care parent and in the AAPI community, conversations about safety and security are heavily emphasized, which may serve as an impediment to fostering.

Sun received initial pushback from his own parents and family when taking on the role as a foster care parent, he noted.

“I think they thought it was too risky and didn’t know what’s going to happen when you bring a strange kid into your home and you don’t know their background,” Sun said.

Sun added that, while foster parents being the same racial or ethnic group as foster children may help the transition go a bit easier, the ultimate goal is to find foster children a loving home after being removed from a traumatic environment.

“I just think that the kids can discern whether the foster parents genuinely care for them or not and so that would trump ethnicity and race,” Sun said.

Dr. Adam Kendall Renewed His Passion for Medicine With Music

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America, July 17, 2017 

MONROVIA, Calif. — Shortly after his wife died in 2011, Dr. Adam Kendall closed their joint private medical practice and found himself on a train to Canada — a trip arranged by his brother — to try and process his grief and find clarity.

“I was consumed by grief over the tremendous loss of my 15-year loving wife, her intense laughter, and fierce interest in being able to capably heal those who were suffering,” Kendall told NBC News.

 After Tragedy Struck, This Doctor Found Healing Through Music 2:24

An introvert, Kendall initially brought his violin on board the train, hoping to brush up on a few Bach sonatas in solitude, he said. But while on the trip, where he had been seated in a dining car, a group of performers on board asked if he would be interested in playing with them during their encore — a first for Kendall, who wasn’t used to playing for strangers.

When he lifted his violin, Kendall said his fellow passengers seemed to connect with the music in a special way, and some even began to share with him their own stories of loss and grief.

Kendall said the conversations he had during that trip reaffirmed his commitment to continue as a physician and also as a classical musician, he said. In addition to working as a board-certified physician in family medicine and palliative care with Davita Medical Group, Kendall now regularly performs live music in public in an effort to help people heal.

“I think that the change I went through in 2011 helped me understand that while we don’t have to necessarily take a medication or be in a sterile room to receive professional counseling, we need something serious to help us through the loss of a spouse or a child or the loss of physical function that a lot of my patients experience,” he said.

‘The Heavy Weight of Expectation’

From as early as the age of 5, Kendall was fascinated with classical music. He recalled an early memory of watching a violinist on TV and his mother, noticing her son’s fixation on the screen, enrolled him in violin and piano classes.

Born in Sanger, California, to a Japanese-American mother and a white father, and raised in Orange County, the music of Kendall’s childhood consisted of Tchaikovsky, Bach, and his dad’s Beatles and Beach Boys collections.

Image: A close-up of Dr. Adam Kendall playing the violin.
Dr. Adam Kendall playing the violin. Courtesy of Dr. Adam Kendall

When he began college at the University of California, San Diego, in 1997, Kendall studied molecular biology while minoring in violin performance. It was there that he met his wife, Normy Chiou, and the two eloped in 2000.

During his research years at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, Kendall said Chiou, who was studying at Oregon Health Sciences University, struggled with depression and contemplated leaving medical school during her first year.

“Being an Asian immigrant, she carried the heavy weight of expectation to first succeed that many young adults face,” Kendall said.

A week after learning about his wife’s mental health challenges, Kendall moved to Oregon to support her and helped her find the courage to seek professional treatment. While in Oregon, he spent a year as part of his USC curriculum doing research training, and also joined the Columbia Symphony Orchestra.

Chiou went on to complete her MD at OHSU in 2003, the same year he graduated from USC. They went on to complete their residency together in Modesto, California, before moving to Newport Beach, where they opened a palliative care private medical practice serving patients with serious illnesses at Hoag Hospital.

Kendall notes that there’s a tendency to be stoic and closed off when speaking about grief and suffering. The tolerance for emotional grief, he said, is something that may have helped them persevere through tough times.

“It was only until recently that I would hear some aspects of the suffering my grandmother went through,” Kendall said.

That suffering, he added, was an eye-opening tragedy for his entire family: when Kendall was 9, his aunt suffered facial trauma and respiratory failure following a car accident that ultimately took her life. As Kendall prepared for college, his grandmother told him she hoped he would one day be able to prevent suffering in the critical stages of someone’s life.

“She could see that the prolonging of life on a machine even for those 48 hours was very harrowing and stressful, and it was a place for me to start to think about how can I make a difference in the field of medicine with the relief of suffering overall,” Kendall said.

First Street Performances

After his 2011 trip to Canada, Kendall returned to medicine with a renewed sense of purpose. Working as a physician and helping others become a large part of his healing and identity, he said.

“After having been on that trip and experiencing the exchange amongst strangers that were willing to share and participate in a musical gathering, I had a sense of inspiration to try to provide a service to the community in that way,” he said.

Inspired by his trip, Kendall obtained a performer’s license and began regularly performing at Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California. His first performance was New Year’s Day 2012, a little over a month after his wife died.

Today, the physician-musician performs every Friday night outside of his apartment complex at the Monrovia Street Fair in Monrovia, California — dressed in a full tuxedo and performing everything from Scott Joplin to film scores to classical concertos. Before each performance, Kendall also introduces his friend’s dog, Barney, who sits next to him on the piano bench as he plays.

“I found that he listened to me just as attentively as some of my well-seasoned classical listeners,” Kendall said. “The beauty of his locked-in gaze on my instruments as I played music for him was I think more powerful than the music itself.”

Kendall has met people from all walks of life through his street performances. Many have come up to him after his performances and have shared their most intimate stories.

“I’ve had a gentleman recently imprisoned share that he had just gotten out of prison that week and being able to walk as a free man in his free country and listen to free music was just a beautiful experience — I thought that was brave of him to share that,” Kendall said.

Any of the money Kendall receives while playing, he gives back to charity. Along with his street performances, Kendall plays at charity concerts to benefit local organizations, including Bloom Where Planted and the Foothill Unity Center, and offers piano and violin lessons to children (the fees from those lessons are also directed to a local charity of their choice).

Kendall says there’s a tremendous amount of healing that is occurring through the act of performing or listening to music — and that, to him, is worth playing another note.

“To be able to play the violin or piano for individuals that lack the capacity to speak openly and to have that life with you is an area of healing that we are just beginning to appreciate — how to provide non-verbal healing,” Kendall said. “I feel like in that regards, there is some neurologic feeling that is occurring that we just can’t put a number on or put a measurement on.”

Mixed Martial Artist Keta Meggett Helps Kids Fight Back Against Bullies

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As published in LA Weekly, June 19, 2017. By: MONICA LUHAR 

At 5 foot 3 inches tall, Keta Rush is a compact force of nature in the wrestling ring.

When she steps onto the mat, she throws on her signature gold cape and instantly becomes a badass, real-life superhero on a mission to empower kids and eradicate youth bullying.

“I feel so damn powerful and so strong and confident and so sure of who I am in this world,” says Rush (born Keta Meggett), MMA fighter, actress and founder of the nonprofit, Team Bully Buster. “I am strong as fuck and anyone who wrestles me, they’re like, ‘Damn girl, you are so strong.’”

She often goes by nicknames like “the Pretty Flower” and “gangster ballerina,” and she is known for her bubbly personality, her graceful acrobatic moves and unforgiving double dropkicks

Meggett says she “accidentally” got her start as pro-wrestler Keta Rush “The Bully Buster” on WOW Women of Wrestling in 2012.

“I thought it was the sci-fi show Heroes, and when I walked in, they called my name, and there was a fucking wrestling ring in there.”The audition turned out to be nothing short of a blessing in disguise, says Meggett. But at the time, she didn’t want anything to do with combat sports. Just watching and sitting through the audition brought back painful memories of being bullied and harassed in high school, when she was unable to defend herself.

The audition turned out to be nothing short of a blessing in disguise, says Meggett. But at the time, she didn’t want anything to do with combat sports. Just watching and sitting through the audition brought back painful memories of being bullied and harassed in high school, when she was unable to defend herself.“I still have PTSD like a mother and can’t stand in Ralph’s with my back to someone, let alone [have] someone in a ring slam me,” she recalls. “I was totally scared of this type of stuff.”

“I still have PTSD like a mother and can’t stand in Ralph’s with my back to someone, let alone [have] someone in a ring slam me,” she recalls. “I was totally scared of this type of stuff.”

But something told her to stay and watch the fight. “Not until the last girl entered the ring and picked up a girl twice my size and threw her was I like, ‘Wow. I want to be badass. I’m tired of being afraid of everything.’”

Meggett agreed to audition for the role as a pro-wrestler and trained six hours a day, six days a week, for three months.

Keta Rush during a Women of Wrestling fight at the Belasco Theater in downtown Los Angeles

 

Keta Rush during a Women of Wrestling fight at the Belasco Theater in downtown Los Angeles
Courtesy Women of Wrestling

When she came up with her wrestling name, Keta Rush, she meant it as an answer to the identity questions she’s faced all her life, like “what are you?” or “are you mixed?” The question she once feared became an empowering opportunity to share her story and speak out against youth bullying. She began to embrace her “ethnically ambiguous” identity and chose to be recognized as Keta Rush, The Bully Buster. “I said to myself, ‘I want to be the voice for the people.”

Meggett proudly wears her gold cape, which symbolizes her strength and resilience as a survivor of bullying and intimate partner abuse.

“I essentially became ‘The Bully Buster’ in every aspect of my life,” she says.

High school was the first time Meggett got a taste of being bullied by haters who spewed verbal insults. At one point, she says, she was physically assaulted by a group of eight girls at a school in North Hills; they targeted her because of her biracial identity, says Meggett, who is half Guatemalan and half African-American.

As a biracial victim of bullying, she is not alone.

Data compiled by children’s wellness advocacy group KidsData.org show that from 2011 to 2013, 48.3 percent of African-American students (grades 7,9 and 11) in L.A. County reported being bullied or harassed. African-American students were more likely to be bullied than other ethnic groups, according to the data. Additionally, 40.7 percent of multiracial students reported being bullied or harassed at school.

According to an internal audit on anti-bullying initiatives released by LAUSD, 23 schools were visited during April to May 2016, and researchers “noted that 19 out of 20 schools (95 percent) did not provide comprehensive/dedicated anti-bullying training to school staff.” A total of 65,310 students responded to the survey, and complete data were obtained from 48,206 students. Nineteen percent of all students surveyed in the audit stated they had been “bullied by a student or other students this school year.”

According to an emailed statement provided by LAUSD to L.A. Weekly, bullying is often underreported and over-identified. “When examining data, care must be taken to differentiate between alleged and actual/verified incidents of bullying. Research substantiates that the most effective and recommended response to bullying is building prosocial environments, where all members of the school community are honored.”

At the time she was physically assaulted, Meggett had been grappling with her parents’ divorce; a few months before that, her mother had been hit by a car and was fighting for her life. There was a lot going on at home, so she kept the bullying a secret, she says — until things turned sour. She says the bullying worsened to the point where she landed in the hospital for about a week with broken bones, shoulder blades, rib cage and injuries sustained to her pancreas and liver.

Meggett says she struggled with self-esteem, lost her faith and lived in fear at school.

“I tried to kill myself. I hated school. I struggled with my grades, I was depressed and was in therapy and counseling to work on my PTSD,” she says. “I thought, if this is the world where people beat you up because of your skin, what is the point of living?”

After moving to another school district, Meggett focused on becoming an actress and began booking auditions and commercials. She went on to become a Muay Thai practitioner and a champion in jiu-jitsu.

Through her adult years, she didn’t openly discussed her story until she sat down with a director of a play during a character-building session, who urged her to share a time when she felt particularly vulnerable. Meggett shared the story of being bullied in high school and felt she needed to create a safe space for kids.

“He said, ‘It’s insane that you’re this happy-go-lucky and doing the damn thing. You should tell your story, and I’m sure you’ll inspire people.’ And he was like, ‘There’s power in it; if there’s power in being vulnerable, you should share it.’”

In 2012, Meggett did just that. She went on to found her nonprofit, Team Bully Buster, and invited life coaches, martial artists and mentors to instill self-defense, confidence and leadership skills in youth. “I’m not teaching people to fight. Theoretically what I’m doing is showing you that you have the power and right to get away from anyone and any situation you don’t want to be in.”

Keta Meggett (aka Keta Rush) founded Team Bully Buster, a program that provides self-defense and leadership skills to women and kids.

Keta Meggett (aka Keta Rush) founded Team Bully Buster, a program that provides self-defense and leadership skills to women and kids.
Courtesy Keta Meggett

Meggett says that these days, bullying has morphed into a “monster and a pandemic,” like the recent case of the viral video of a teenage boy who was punched by a classmate and suffered from brain injury, or the incident where classmates used anti-semitic and anti-gay taunts to harass a 14-year-old student.

According to national studies on bullying, there’s been an overall national decrease in the number of reported bullying in schools, says Dr. Brendesha Tynes, associate professor of Education and Psychology at the USC Rossier School of Education. Tynes, who focuses on race-related experiences in the digital space and cyberbullying experiences, also points out that in regional studies, the numbers associated with bullying tend to be much higher, depending on the type of victimization. For instance, in L.A. County, student reports of bullying are higher than what the national studies are finding, she says.

In her latest study, UCLA professor Jaana Juvonen and her team found that youths attending ethnically more diverse schools felt safer in school and dealt with less bullies, and felt less lonely than those who attended less diverse schools, she explain to L.A. Weekly. While anti-bullying policies are now in place in most schools, one of the questions is whether these policies are practiced in ways that make a difference, Juvonen says.

The doors for Team Bully Buster’s first physical location will open this August in Studio City. Meggett, who is now in her 30s, continues to live with PTSD but believes her work with Team Bully Buster and her involvement in MMA have greatly taken the fear out of her life so she can serve others and continue to empower youth.

“I love when people ask me what I am now,” she says. “I’m proud to stay I’m Guatemalan and black. I want other youth to see me and be like, ‘I like her. I like that she’s little and does the damn thing.’”