Like many boys, brothers David and Kenny played baseball growing up. But their mother, Christine Eckstein, remembers how much her sons clearly didn’t like it. They would write the word “NO” in the orange dirt or sit backwards in the dugout as a form of protest.

But unlike many other boys, David and Kenny had a reason for disliking America’s pastime. Both were diagnosed with autism at a young age. This meant they had a hard time focusing outdoors in the sun and were often slow to pick up on social cues from their coach or teammates. These sensory and social challenges made it tough for them to play any team sport.

“We tried baseball. We tried dance at one point. I think we tried soccer at one point too,” remembers their older sister, Katarina.

Then one night, while watching their favorite martial arts cartoon together, the Ecksteins got the idea to try Taekwondo. Before long, the whole family, including Katarina’s dad Peter and little sister Ava, was out on the mat, working and learning together.

“I felt like the environment was so much more understanding. What they promoted was just so different from other sports,” Katarina says. “It’s not like a group thing where you’re competing with everyone around you. You’re competing with yourself, to be the best possible version of yourself.”

Katarina Eckstein says the positive impact on her brothers was life changing.

“Their confidence has grown immensely,” she says. “I can’t explain how much this has helped them grow into the people they are today.”

After watching her own brothers’ transformation, Katarina — who was in eighth grade at the time — decided to create an organization to help other families like hers. When she opened the doors of Breaking Barriers in 2011, they had just one class with just one student. “I thought, how is this going to work?” she says.

Now, five years later, the program has 30 students, multiple weekly classes, camps and even tournaments. Based in this central Florida city near Orlando, Breaking Barriers trains children with a wide variety of special needs, from Down syndrome and muscular dystrophy to ADHD and the hearing impaired.

“Some kids come in and try to boost their confidence. Some kids just need a social environment,” says Katarina, who runs the program along with her parents.

Susan Sleboda’s son, Ryan, has autism and joined Breaking Barriers two years ago. He is now one of seven students in the program who have worked their way up to black belt status.

“The beauty of a program like this is that they take things at a pace that’s suitable for each individual child,” Sleboda says. “You can have children with all kinds of abilities and disabilities not just succeed but excel. It’s incredible.”

Katarina Eckstein is now in college but comes home to Sanford to teach classes on the weekends. She credits her brothers with teaching her what really matters.

“My brothers, David and Kenny, they’ve had a huge impact on me,” she says. “They’ve taught me patience for sure, and understanding that everyone’s different… and that’s OK.”