When one of the kids at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in West Baltimore acts out, chances are she'll be sent not to the principal's office but to the Mindful Moment room, a soothing space with comfy cushions and beanbags, lit by glowing pink Himalayan salt lamps. It's part of the Mindful Moment program run by the Holistic Life Foundation
, a nonprofit started in 2001 by brothers Atman and Ali Smith, who grew up in the neighborhood, and their friend Andres Gonzalez. Longtime meditators, they wanted to give kids better tools to cope with stress and anger in this low-income, high-crime neighborhood, which was at the epicenter of the riots that followed Freddie Gray's death in police custody. They began by teaching mindfulness first at another elementary school, then at a local YMCA. Now, thanks to their efforts, the day at Coleman starts with a breathing exercise over the PA system and ends with an after-school program where, in addition to sports and tutoring, students can learn yoga. All day, staffers guide students through breathing and other centering exercises in the Mindful Moment room. And it's working: In the 2013–14 school year, Coleman had zero suspensions.
With their smiles, beards, and cool T-shirts, Gonzalez, 36, Ali, 40, and Atman, 38, make ideal big brothers, and that's how the kids see them. Several have even come back after graduating to work with them. The enthusiasm starts young. A fourth grader told the guys that a little time in the Mindful Moment room calms her down "when I have an attitude." And a fifth grader said she uses the breathing techniques when she babysits little kids—when they're hyper, she tells them to take ten deep breaths. Gonzalez wants all the students to have that kind of resourcefulness and share it: "That's how you stop the trickle-down effect, when Mom or Pops has a hard day and yells at the kids, and then the kids go to school and yell at their friends," he says. "We've had parents tell us, 'I came home the other day stressed out, and my daughter said, Hey, Mom, you need to sit down. I need to teach you how to breathe.