By Charise Wallace.
The familiar litany of ills that plague Baltimore’s poor African-American communities – crime, unemployment, and poor education – affect people who live with it in profound ways. Poverty and the isolation it engenders inflicts a deep psychological toll. Which is why Baltimore residents Andres Gonzales, 36, Ali Smith, 40, and Atman Smith, 36 founded the Holistic Life Foundation, an organization that teaches “mindfulness techniques” to help people cope with stress when living in a city filled with violence and uncertainty.
“It’s crazy how much stuff is bombarding them,” Gonzales said. One scenario kid’s deal with are drugs in their families homes. “You would drop the kid off and there’s just heads everywhere…everyone’s high…no wonder they’re tired.”
The group engages residents through a variety of exercises and techniques in which some are called, the mountain pose, rock pose, warrior pose and a popular breathing routine that helps the students feel calm called the Pranayama, but they refer to it as the “taco breath” because you’re folding your tongue in the shape of a taco.
To reach the people most in need of help, HLF focuses on the city’s East and West side, where crime is more prevalent and median household incomes are far below the citywide average.
Gonzales, Ali and Atman met during their undergraduate years at University of Maryland College Park. They partied all through-out college, until one night of partying turned into a deep conversation about the meaning of life.
They then transitioned their booze to become vegetarians and studied astrology, philosophy and ancient history. “Our partying turned into a book club,” said Gonzales.
After graduating, Gonzales, who’s Puerto Rican and originally from Anne Arundel County, moved to West Baltimore with Ali and Atman. They discovered yoga and deep meditating was what they wanted to learn more of, so Ali and Atman’s Godfather taught them everything they know.
“He made us promise that he wasn’t going to teach students…he was going to teach teachers,” said Gonzales.
Unlike Gonzales, who attended public schools and was dealing with the law before the age of 18, Ali and Atman attended private school most of their lives while growing up in West Baltimore. They were surrounded by positive male mentors in a friendly environment, but once they arrived back home from college they suddenly saw a despair in their community. “You can literally cut the suffering with a knife,” said Gonzales. “Everyone was just mugging each other up…there’s no love, no compassion. Atman calls it the “Wild Wild West.”
This lack of community engagement inspired them to change the tone in theirs and other neighborhoods like Greater Mondawmin, for example to uplift one another.
“We were at this place where we were blissing out…life is good. If you can walk and breathe and see then what are you complaining about?”
HLF started at Windsor Hills Elementary in 2002. The principal at the time presented Gonzales, Ali and Atman with a challenge: to discipline a group of deviant young male fifth graders instead of sending them straight into in-school suspension.
Day by day, they saw progress in their behaviors by teaching them basic yoga techniques. The school’s staff saw a change in the students attitudes as well: “They’re saying, ‘Look, I don’t know what y’all are doing…and I don’t care what y’all are doing, but keep doing it,’” said Gonzales.
Their strategy to teach the youth to be stress-free leaders succeeded. Now, some of those same group of fifth graders are now mentors and instructors for HLF.
“We weren’t the best kids so we needed something to help us get through…and this is what it turned into,” said Jerron Wallace, 25 who lives in West Baltimore and now teaches at their summer youth camp at Robert W. Coleman Elementary. “I just wanted an outlet. I would get a ride home with Andres and we would spend hours talking about my life because I didn’t really have anything.”
HLF now provides services at 14 public schools from pre-k through fifth, also middle school and high school students. They teach yoga and enrichment activities during their after school program called Holistic Life, and during school hours they have a “school-wide initiative” called Mindful Moment. “First time ever the school had zero suspensions because they’d just send them to our room,” said Gonzales about Robert W. Coleman.
“We learn to keep ourselves calm when we’re frustrated,” said 11-year-old Natisha Anderson who attends Robert W. Coleman Elementary and the summer youth camp for HLF.
“Kids are going home teaching their parents now…the neighborhoods are changing,” said Gonzales.
When some of their students are in the need for help, Gonzales, Ali and Atman sometimes let ex-convicts, former drug dealers, former gang members and foster care children stay with them.
“Our home is kind of like open doors for the kids,” said Gonzales.
These students know that there are major issues going on within their communities. “I asked them what they want to see changing in their neighborhood,” said Wallace to the youth at the summer camp. “They say things like ‘littering’…things like, ‘I don’t want people to sell drugs anymore.’ They definitely understand but they feel powerless. So they try to stay away…being separated is a good start.”
“We’re going to continue to go to these communities,” said Gonzales. “We’re going to keep spreading the love and do what we’re doing. Show by example and lead by example.”