Transforming Youth through Contemplative Service

cormac with student

by Gabriela De Golia and Brian Thompson

“Last week, my grandmother went to the hospital,” said Tyrone, a student at New Horizons High School in New Haven, Conn. “I was so aggravated. So I sat down and started breathing. That’s it – just breathing. Relaxing myself, trying to stay optimistic.”

New Horizons High School caters to underserved youth, many of whom have histories of trauma. His impulse to go inward when presented with an emotionally challenging circumstance is no small feat, and a direct result of the school’s revolutionary mindfulness program.

Initially, the program was solely focused on teaching Transcendental Meditation to students. When it became clear that wasn’t working for many, staff decided to take a different tact and collaborated with Cormac Levenson, a Zen Buddhist monk and founder of Elm Village, a non-profit partner of Copper Beech Institute that teaches trauma-informed mindfulness to underserved populations. He and his staff, in partnership with Copper Beech Institute, thus began teaching innovative mindfulness classes to the New Horizons students.

“[They] started offering things like [mindfulness-centered] hip hop, creative voice, and yoga classes,” shared Maureen Bransfield, the school’s principal. “We also have several kids who are in Real Talk, a mindful communications class. Getting kids to be centered within themselves, present, speaking and listening mindfully, is a huge first step.”

Thanks in part to the support of Copper Beech Institute, Cormac and the Elm Village staff provide a wide array of services to New Horizons’ students and staff. Mindfulness instructors offer twenty hours worth of classes to students each week, of which students are required to take at least one. Ten additional hours are spent each week with school staff to implement institutional changes that better support students, lessen workloads, and create a more mindful atmosphere.

It’s all been making a very clear difference in the life of the community.

“Everyone is more calm in the school now,” shared Anthony, another student. “Before the mindfulness classes began, everyone would just run around the school. But after they started, everybody has been coming through the doors chilling, more peaceful.”

Anthony further attested to the transformative nature of the courses and teachers. “Before, I used to get mad and not care about anything. I didn’t want to talk to anybody, until Cormac told me that if I ever get mad, I can just salute myself, say [a reassuring word to myself], and it will calm everything down. I did, and it actually worked! I started talking to people more as a result.”

Similar to Anthony, Tyrone credits Elm Village teachers and his peers for much of his growth: “The teacher molds you into something bigger than you were before you got in [the classroom]. She gives me ideas I never thought about before, and I get ideas from the other kids too.”

When asked to reflect on what mindfulness encompasses, another student Alexis shared that while “[mindfulness is] hard because you are going to change your ways, [it’s also] beautiful because you get to see the ways in which you are changing.”

Looking ahead, Cormac hopes to widen the scope of what Elm Village has to offer at New Horizons with the help of Copper Beech Institute:

“We’re planning on going into middle schools and have the high schoolers be mentors to the younger students. That kind of relationship brings a lot of healing to both the mentor and the younger student.

“We are also seeking out ways to support the community more fully, including mental health and employment services. We’ve started a tech program where we bought computer parts and some students are learning to build computers. We hope this will turn into an employment program.”

From Cormac’s perspective, Elm Village’s work is only possible with the help of its staffers and a larger community of support. In particular, he appreciates the partnership with Copper Beech Institute, which he views as deeply collaborative and helps make Elm Village’s work at New Horizons possible.

“Copper Beech Institute supports us financially and through trainings, connects us with other organizations, and offers us ideas and methodologies that have helped us shape our mission. We’re so grateful for that.”

Learn more about Copper Beech Institute’s outreach in the community here.

Awaken Everyday Blog
Writing to inspire mindfulness, contemplation and wholesome living, by Copper Beech master teachers, students and contributors.

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