One hundred sixty freshmen at Gertz Ressler, a distinguished charter high school in South Central Los Angeles, participated in the YES! for Schools program this September 2011.
The teaching team consisted of a total of five teachers and assistants: Nancy Zalazar (myself), Nadine Allan, Dee Dee Jackson (co-teachers), Kasia Fraser and Edgar Liquidano (assistants). Each team member brought a unique quality, perspective and energy to share with the students. Edgar and I are children of Latin immigrants ourselves. I was born in Buenos Aires, while Edgar’s ethnic background is Guatemalan. Nadine is a recent UCLA graduate in Fine Arts, herself a mixture of Chinese and American ancestry. Kasia is a Polish immigrant, tall, elegant and statuesque, a former model with unbridled energy and enthusiasm. Dee Dee is African American, very soft spoken with a gentle, loving presence.
In this area of South Central Los Angeles, the majority of the population is minorities, immigrants. Most of the kids are Central American: Salvadorian, Honduran, Nicaraguan, And Guatemalan. The next largest ethnicity is Mexican. And finally, we had a couple of Ethiopian and Brazilian kids as well. They were apprehensive at first. Since being cool is the teenager’s first priority, and breathing techniques look weird, some followed the program with uncertainty. But as the days rolled on, they relaxed, began to enjoy the breathing techniques and processes, and eventually, they positively brightened and bloomed.
The freshman year, a fragile and impressionable time, is perhaps the ideal moment to introduce this program. These children of immigrants, were perhaps the first with a chance to go to college from their families.
Why are they stressed? Well, for many reasons: from home and family issues, a heavy and demanding workload from the charter school curriculum, and simply, from growing up within today’s particular economic and social pressures. Add to that: being a teenager, which involves much distraction, such as texting, movies, video games, and lots of time in front of a computer, studying or otherwise. They tend not to sleep enough, stay up late and have to rise early for school the next morning. So, they are working with a bankrupt and negative rest balance.
Challenges in teaching this program surfaced early on. A few days we were outside, and the school borders a main traffic thoroughfare. Keeping the attention of teenagers is a chore in and of itself. Doing this outside, alongside Los Angeles traffic, is well nigh impossible. I really got to use my source voice these days. (Read, sore throat, and implicit, acute energy exhaustion.)
It was powerful and so heartening to see these kids shift towards the positive. After they learned Victory Breath, some kids reported sleeping more easily, and deeper.
Also early on, others reported that they used the breath at home, when someone was pushing their buttons. And, they practiced being Button Proof, with varying degrees of success. ” I still got my buttons pushed Miss, but I was thinking about it.”
Later still, one of the Gertz Ressler teachers, Ms. Gandhi, told us that some of her English students asked if they could do the breathing technique before a test to focus more. She was thrilled and she let them. She asked us if the other classes would be getting the program.
After they learned the Advanced Breathing Technique, one girl, Cassandra, excitedly shared: “I was finally able to sleep, and for the first time, I felt safe.”
The PE Coach, Ms. Zuniga, and the assistant coach, Mr. Mallard, were able to participate in the program, and as a result, also underwent positive changes.
In her post-course feedback, Ms. Zuniga said, ” I feel blessed to have learned new techniques, which can help me relax, be stress free, and gain energy. I will now be more patient and have more self-control with everything that I do. Also with anyone that passes my path. I am officially Button Proof. ”
One student, Adriana Romero, a quiet, contemplative Mexican girl, said, “It helped me find the true me. I feel like I can do what I want with this new “power” I’ve gained.
Ruben Vazquez described the YES program as “the best thing not only in the world, but in the Universe.”
At the end of the course, Aden Abebaw, a delicate Ethiopian girl, noted, “I feel really good about myself and it’s easy for me to relax without having any trouble.”
Kassandra Hernandez shared, “I thank the YES program for helping me find myself.”
One girl, Jazmin Romero, a dark blonde girl with green eyes, wrote, “I felt relaxed every time I left this class and it has helped me with my regular life. The breathing has helped me in a weird way to stay out of trouble and I am grateful for this experience.”
One boy, Miguel, when asked how he felt at the end of the course, replied, “Like I was born again.”
Some parents shared their happiness about the course with Ms. Zuniga on Parents Day. Also, I ran into a very grateful mother in the courtyard one day after classes. She thanked me profusely for teaching her daughter, and that her daughter loved the YES program. She added that she knew how important it was for the kids to get this training at this age.
On that note, one girl, Blue Galvan, shared, ” It made me feel better and happy. I started being calmer and nicer than usual. My parents see an improvement in me and they love it and I love it!!”
Along with the five week program, some YES Plus (college students and young professionals) volunteers joined us in tutoring the kids in an after school program. It was here that we could bond one on one with the kids more easily. One girl, Nathalia, shared how much she loved doing yoga, and that she taught her mother how to do sun salutations. Another girl shared of her challenges at home with a controlling father.
Further, YES Plus volunteers are raising funds to donate supplies to the school, including books and sports equipment.
All in all, it was a very successful program for all. What a pleasure to be involved in positively impacting the lives of so many young people. I am grateful and I am humbled by the experience.
There are plans to continue teaching students, their parents and teachers at Gertz Ressler, pending a review of this program and funds availability. The vision is to help and support these students through their high school years, giving them every possibility of a happy, successful life.