Mar Vista Gardens Community Center
We initially went to the Mar Vista Gardens community center in May to see the space and met Jay Gonzales, the Branch Director . He showed us around and explained their history and their mission. For me the two most salient points were how many young people in their programs lived right there in the neighborhood and how quickly the space had transformed from being loosely populated by gang members, with no positive programming, to a safe space, welcomed and utilized by the families living in the housing community.
Our first class had about 40 8-9 year olds, in a gymnasium with surprisingly loud acoustics, for any activity, let alone a class on meditation and mindfulness. Initially the program made it “fundatory” ~ our preferred term over mandatory. :) So we definitely had a few kids in the group throwing a metaphorical wrench in the works ~ understandably so. It was summertime, in a loud gymnasium they were accustomed to to running freely in, with a loudspeaker blaring every few minutes with necessary announcements. And we were asking them to do things which were completely unfamiliar. Not the environment most conducive to developing calm mindful practices! We had our work cut out for us.
But from the beginning, we knew the kids were responding positively. We met every Wednesday afternoon all summer. Initially we talked about our emotions ~ also not something they were accustomed to doing. What do our emotions feel like in our body, do we feel like we can “control” them, and are we able to imagine and experience anything that we want in our minds? We spoke about the possible consequences of not being able to handle our emotions productively and where that can lead to. Every child in the class knows someone or of someone who is in jail because of violence. All of them said that they do feel badly after they hurt someone else, that it hurts them too. Even the most “unruly” in the crowd, the ones most resistant to sitting still and having to make big efforts to be calm in a loud place, joined in to the conversations and tried everything that we asked of them.
We did guided visualizations, some yoga, lots of breathing exercises, games to identify other’s emotions, and had discussions about what we do when we are angry or upset and other things to try instead. We interviewed many of them on camera, which they loved, asking them questions about their feelings and view of self and their surroundings, and their thoughts about meditation and mindfulness. We did mindfulness exercises around eating, listening, and observing. And we even got them to meditate! Some people probably don’t believe it can be done, but kids can lean into meditation and quiet better than some adults, and it was unbelievably gratifying to watch them grow into their comfort with being still and going within.
Partway through the summer we released the “Fundatory” mandate. We were then in “competition” with games, free play, and sports ~ and we wondered if we would lose them all to those appealing options.
But they kept coming! And they continue to come. We have moved now into the school year and into a smaller space, with a core group of kids who are wanting more. They ask to meditate, request guided visualizations, and smile and light up when they see us coming with our yoga mats and tiny bells. It is a group perfectly sized to effect real change and develop lasting learning. They report using the breathing techniques on their own, practicing more intentional mindfulness, and thinking back to things that we talk about in class when they are feeling their emotions start to take control. Some have said that they have gone home and told their parents they appreciate them for the first time ever. There is no way to describe how invaluable this is ~ to be part of the ripples of positivity and mindfulness that flow from these brilliant young people.
One last thing to tell ~ a chicken soup for the soul kinda fact ~ one day we asked the kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. Their answers ranged from police officer to nurse to a doctor to a veterinarian. Not a fame seeker in the bunch! This is unusual in this day and age of youtube fame and glorifying selfies. But all of them want to do work that helps people in some way.
This is our future, folks! So Monday nights you’ll find us nestled in a classroom in the back of the Mar Vista Gardens community center, helping to guide future leaders who will make positive and peaceful impacts in this world ~ and live fulfilling mindful lives themselves. And what could be better than that?