Using mindfulness to find greater peace

When Kristin Colarusso-Martin, the community schools director for the Massena (N.Y.) Central School District, started planning for the reopening of schools last summer, she wanted to find a way to help students and staff deal with the stress and trauma brought on by the pandemic. “We recognized that students were going to be coming into school, and our staff as well, with this collective trauma that we had to try to figure out how to address,” said Colarusso-Martin during an AFT TEACH session July 10.

Yoga class in school
Photo courtesy of the Massena Central School District

Even though the district brought in counselors, therapists and social workers, something was missing. “We needed something broader for everyone that people who are interested could participate in,” she said. After looking into effective practices, Colarusso-Martin found the answer in mindfulness, which has been shown to produce positive outcomes in communities that have experienced trauma.

As chance would have it, Colarusso-Martin connected with the Holistic Life Foundation, which had just launched a new program that provided mental health awareness training. The nearby St. Regis Mohawk Tribe established the Holistic Life Foundation (HLF) Satellite Initiative Programs in Akwesasne.

In October 2020, the Massena Federation of Teachers applied for and won a $25,000 grant from the AFT Innovation Fund to participate in the HLF trainings. The district used the funds to incorporate mindfulness and yoga in its schools.

“For the past year, we had programs happening virtually and in person,” said Colarusso-Martin. “Not only did we offer mindfulness and yoga for students, but we also offered it for staff.” Staff members were able to “start the week off with a mindful meditation for about 20 minutes every Monday,” she said, adding that every Tuesday through Friday, the school day would start with a five-minute mindful meditation.

“As the year progressed, we started to have student ambassadors, so our mindfulness leaders would call on student volunteers to help lead the classes.” Colarusso-Martin was pleased to see some students, who had not shown leadership skills in the past, “were volunteering and coming up to the front of the class and leading their classmates.”

She said that the district would continue to fund the partnership next year and beyond. “We’re hoping to keep this going for as long as we’re possibly able to because this isn’t something that’s a one and done. … It’s not something you can do once and expect change.”

The hope is that as the students go through grade levels, there will be some significant decrease in discipline, anxiety and suicidal ideation, said Colarusso-Martin. A bonus was the cross-cultural mentoring by young adults from the St. Regis Tribe. “It was a great experience for them to share parts of the culture with the students from our community,” she said. 

Mary Terrance, an HLF team member, agreed. “Cross-cultural mentoring has been a really great opportunity for us to feel valued and heard, and to revitalize parts of our culture and to share parts of our culture with our neighboring communities.

“Mindfulness has helped our community find a greater peace,” added Terrance, noting that HLF hopes to create more satellite programs in other cities and school districts. “Our goal is … to continue to cultivate peace and build that momentum … [to] make mindfulness opportunities available for all,” she said. 

The session wrapped up with participants being led in mindful mediation and yoga by the Holistic Life team members, Terrance and Kanenishon Arquette. 

[Adrienne Coles]