In West Baltimore, bordered by the battered rowhouses and glass-filled alleys made familiar by news reports, sits a small square you wouldn’t know was there — a green haven, decorated with bright murals and mandalas. Watermelon and mint grow in garden beds, and shade trees provide respite from summer heat, offering solace rarely granted in the middle of a city.
Formerly a vacant lot, the Quiet Place was transformed by mentors and students of the Holistic Life Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that uses mindfulness meditation as an intervention in schools and community centers. In many ways, the Quiet Place, is just the physical manifestation of the internal peace that the HLF has spread in the community over the past 20 years. This is the story of an organization, and a community, challenging the narrative of urban violence and building well-being together, one breath at a time.
Many urban communities, including some in East and West Baltimore, suffer as a result of insufficient resources, high rates of unemployment, homelessness and crime. As compared with higher-income neighborhoods, the youths of these communities also carry a significantly elevated risk of academic failure, school dropout, internalizing as well as externalizing psychological problems, school bullying, and aggression in response to exposure to traumatizing events. Yet even though these youths have an increased risk of suffering from psychological burdens, they are less likely to receive the help they need to overcome such challenges.
When the founders of the HLF returned home to Baltimore from college, they set out to do what they could to change that cycle. After nearly 20 years of operation, they have worked with thousands of young people and have directly contributed to the mounting body of research that supports the efficacy of mind-body practices as a powerful tool to confront to a variety of ills: mental, physical and social.
With a teenage desire to be perceived as “cool,” Jamar “Peetey” Peete strayed from the mindfulness practice he learned from the HLF when he was a child and fell behind in his academics during high school. A talented athlete, Peete left Baltimore to attend college with a lacrosse scholarship. He says he owes this success to the support he received from the HLF. “I guess they saw potential. And I needed that, because I was blind to a lot of things.” While in college, Peete studied business and returned to Baltimore with big ideas for helping the organization that helped him.
A second-grader when he first started learning from the HLF, Ramon was a victim of lead paint poisoning — like many of his peers — and had recently lost his father to gun violence. As he struggled through anger issues, Ramon says having a community of people that cared without judgment and provided coping tools was life-changing. “I use those skills throughout my daily life. There isn’t a day that I live that I don’t have to apply any of the practices,” he says. Now the father of two sets of twins, Ramon strives to inspire the next generation of kids in his community and beyond, working for the HLF as a mindfulness leader. “I always try to be who I wanted to be standing in front of when I was younger,” says Ramon.
Peete moved into the area so that he could have more direct, hands-on involvement with the students he mentored, and to better understand the lives they were living and neighborhoods they were growing up in. “So many places in Baltimore, the city itself, it only takes you a couple of steps to end up in a place you probably don’t want to be,” Peete says. “I want to help anyone, anywhere. This is my people.”
The youngest of three siblings, Artavia used to be known as “the mean sister.” Struggling with anger issues and asthma, Artavia felt like her voice was never heard — or if it was, it was ignored. When she joined the HLF’s mentoring program at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School, Artavia’s teachers and family — and Artavia herself — sensed a change. It calmed her to sit, to listen to music and to breathe. “Yoga is — it helps people,” says Artavia. “For headaches, for anger problems, it helps you concentrate on the root. And it calms me down.” Artavia has dreams of becoming a basketball player, an inventor, or a nurse, like her mom. “I want to help people, too,” she says.
When the mentors enter new schools, it is to a warm welcome because, Peete says, students are intrigued by yoga and meditation, and the results are immediate. “We tell people to be scientists, to treat it like an experiment and test it out. You might be calm right now, but there will come a time when you need some of this practice.” The students look up to Peete, who says even he still works hard at practicing patience.
Over the past 20 years, the HLF has collaborated with numerous research institutions, such as Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Pennsylvania State University, Loyola University and the University of Baltimore to study the efficacy of breath-based mindfulness stress reduction as a community intervention. The studies have produced several peer-reviewed articles and found that the mindfulness curriculum was attractive to students, teachers and school administrators. Positive effects were observed on problematic behaviors including rumination, intrusive thoughts and emotional arousal. A qualitative assessment with middle school students following intervention showed experiences in improved impulse control and emotional regulation.
With tending, a garden grows. In addition to mindfulness and meditation programs, and sponsored field trips and camps, the HLF spearheads several programs geared toward community enrichment. Community cleanups and gardening are just some of the ways that members from the organization get the chance to meet, engage and support residents outside of the educational system. Taking a break from her downward dog, Asia strolls through a community garden in Druid Hill Park, pointing out the various fruits, vegetables and herbs that will be harvested by residents throughout the summer. A senior in high school, Asia is enrolled in the HLF’s workforce development program, training to become an employee so that she, too, can begin teaching classes and sharing her practice.
Ramon seems to know and be known by everyone in his North Pulaski neighborhood. To him, this is both a blessing and a curse. Because the community is tightknit, he is able to share the skills he has learned through the HLF with others, and they see the positive impact involvement with the program has had on his life. But childhood ties can also bring pressures from those whose lives have gone in different directions. While in college, Ramon’s mindfulness practice lapsed and he found himself letting the world get to him. Even now, he says, “I always have to duck old habits or old friends who aren’t in the same lane as me. I’m able to do it because of the yoga and the practice and my mentors.”
Across the street from the court where he grew up, Ramon makes a stop by a memorial to Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old neighborhood resident whose death in 2015 sparked a summer of riots against police brutality throughout the city. “It’s a sad thing that happened, but I feel as though there was one positive outcome,” Ramon says. “Growing up in Baltimore, you feel like you don’t have a voice, like you’re not able to speak, or say how you feel. Nobody understands what you’re going through, so this was a way for us to explain and show the world what we were going through.”
Through the HLF, Peete, Ramon, Asia, Artavia and hundreds of other Baltimore youths continue to build confidence to trust their own voices and to share their experiences and ideas with the world. The mentoring the HLF provides doesn’t stop, and the community it cultivates doesn’t disappear when students step away from school grounds; instead, it carries with them everywhere they go. Many have left and returned and always find a home within the group, just as they do with their mindfulness practices. When they remember to pause and come back to their breaths, they feel at home in their minds again.
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