Maggie Messina overcame the odds. Now she’s helping others do the same
Maggie Messina is a woman on a mission. As the owner of Taecole Tae Kwon Do and Fitness in Albertson, she’s passionate about creating a safe haven where people can learn martial arts and instilling in children the values of self-confidence and hard work.
“My mission is the betterment of children,” Messina said. “Our youth are our future. If we don’t make them feel good about themselves and that they can achieve anything and that they’re smart and bright, what kind of future are we going to have?”
And for Messina, being an inspiration to youngsters has a special significance—in fact, if it wasn’t for the people who pushed her to succeed as a child she wouldn’t have ended up where she is today, she says.
“I had people in my life who believed in me, who gave me an ounce of hope. That’s why I held on and pushed forward,” Messina said. “It saved my life.”
Messina had far from an idyllic childhood. The sixth of 11 kids, her mom was a drug addict and Messina ended up in the foster system of a poor upstate neighborhood. Though a few people inspired her to keep pressing on, most told her she would never succeed or overcome her circumstances.
Upon graduating from boarding school in 1985, she had aged out of the foster care system so she ended up homeless for close to a year. She bounced around on friends’ couches, trying to get by, and soon found tae kwon do as a relief from her situation.
“I was so depressed. I started practicing tae kwon do and the rest of my worries and the world wasn’t with me,” Messina said. “It was like a sanctuary time. That was the place I could go to no matter what was going on. I fell in love with it.”
She soon fell in love with the martial art and when she wasn’t working at Sloan Kettering, she was practicing and working at Kang System (now T. Kang Taekwondo Martial Arts Center) in Brooklyn. She dreamed of opening a martial arts school and in 2001, that dream came to fruition when she opened Taecole Tae Kwon Do and Fitness in Albertson.
Messina hopes to create a safe space for children to learn martial arts, the same way that she found a refuge at the Brooklyn martial arts studio.
“I use myself as an example,” Messina said. “We teach kids discipline and the importance of not bullying and self confidence, and let them know they can become anything they want, as long as they’re willing to work.”
Messina has created a “no judgment” zone at Taecole, where everyone is welcome. She strives to reinforce to students that they can do anything they set their minds to.
“I tell the kids and teens, especially, to stay focused and not fall into peer pressure,” Messina said, adding that most Taecole athletes go on to college.
Messina said she hopes to motivate students who were like her—in rough situations but willing to work hard. Her studio works with kids who have money and behavior issues, and her compassion for them knows no bounds. Messina and her husband legally adopted Brandon, a 16-year-old student who had been at Taecole since he was 3, because his parents were addicted to drugs. Brandon, who was from New York City and living in the projects, was continually told he would never go to college. Because of the investment of the Messina family, as well as several others, the Mineola High School alum is now set to graduate from Marist College in May 2017, with a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and international business.
The Albertson resident is also passionate about teaching youngsters about stranger danger. She volunteers her time to do presentations at schools, as well as for Scout troops both on Long Island and upstate.
During the interactive presentations, students not only learn what to do if approached by a stranger, but how to not put themselves in risky environments.
“We teach them to be proactive about putting themselves in a dangerous situation,” Messina said. “We try to prepare them and teach them the importance of pro-activeness.”
For Messina, Taecole and her lectures aren’t just about giving kids the skills to protect themselves. It’s about providing them a nurturing environment where they can grow as people.
“When I realized how many children suffer as I did, I took it very personally,” Messina said. “Children need confidence and hope. It’s the seeds we plant in their little hearts and minds that can help dictate the people they become tomorrow. For me, it’s all about the follow through, and seeing the kids through to the end. Not every child needs it, but if there’s a kid who needs more support, we’re there for them.”