When J.G. Larochette started working in Richmond in 2002, he couldn’t sleep. The 22-year-old St. Mary’s College basketball player was shaken by the experience of filling in as a substitute at Playworks, a nonprofit that reduces playground conflict through games and physical activities. “I was shocked and ran into deep anxiety over seeing the violence and pain the kids were a part of,” Larochette said. “How could this pain be so severe for these little kids?”
When Playworks staff asked him to stay on through the end of the semester, Larochette declined. Then, after two more sleepless nights, he caved in and took the job.
That experience planted the seed for Larochette to launch the Mindful Life Project one decade later in May 2012. It’s his attempt to provide elementary-school students with a toolbox of self-care techniques and conflict resolution skills they might use to survive the kind of stress that – even experienced secondhand – could rob a grown man of sleep. The idea was to get at the children before their environments did.
After Playworks, Larochette worked as an elementary school teacher in South Richmond for eight years, where he became versed in the poverty, family crises, and violence that mark the lives of Richmond’s most vulnerable youth. “The kids who are coming from families of generational violence and poverty and families that have been unserved or disserved for generations need an extra support,” he said.
In the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act, Larochette saw an academic system focused on test scores without the necessary social and emotional support, which resulted in a cycle of suspension and detention and defiance. “What we’ve had is a counter-productive push,” he said. “So we force academics and the kids who are having the hardest time with their emotions and trauma and life experiences are then feeling more outcast.”
The Mindful Life Project serves nearly 2,000 South Richmond students at five elementary schools: Coronado, Richmond College Prep, Stege, King, and Nystrom. The project is divided into two main programs. For the regular school day intervention program, Rise-Up, the Mindful Life Project asks partner schools to refer some 40 students who struggle and some 15 students who are leaders. Mindful Life then pulls the qualified students out of class twice a week for an hour of therapeutic art, yoga, or performing arts. This includes music, spoken word poetry, and break dancing.
The other program, Mindful Community, is used in students’ classrooms three days a week to supplement their regular school day with brief trainings in self-regulation, empathy, and social awareness.
Larochette said he wants his students to take ownership of their mindfulness and know that they can use it whenever they might need it. “Living in a mindful way – being able to see situations or experiences from that perspective of ‘I’m feeling fear right now, I am not fear, but I’m feeling fear. And that’s OK. That’s a normal experience. Something really bad just happened. How do I respond to that fear?’” Larochette said.
The point is to give kids tools to recognize and cope with terror or rage, instead of trying to deny those feelings, he said.
“Something we relay to the kids is that life isn’t about happiness. We do experience happiness. We also experience all the other emotions and feelings that arise in us and we often try to avoid them as human beings. The negative feelings, supposedly,” Larochette said.
Orly Politi, 32, mindfulness and therapeutic arts teacher, who previously worked with teenagers at a San Francisco boarding school, said some of her older students had already experienced so much trauma that they were seemingly irrecoverable. The Mindful Life Project gives her more optimism to intervene before it’s too late.
“We’re getting to these kids before they have a chance to let their environment, which they have no control over, shape them into who they aren’t,” Politi said. Through Mindful Life, she said, her students get the one-on-one time they need to feel seen, gain confidence, and develop leadership skills.
Although the program has only been in effect for one year, Larochette said the transformation he’s seen in some students is dramatic. After an eight year-old student witnessed a shooting near his house, he said, the student went to check that everyone was okay and then headed to his room to practice mindfulness. The student said that he went from experiencing the biggest fear in his life to feeling like the fear was there, but that it wasn’t out of control, Larochette said.
School administrators have also noted progress. Peppina Chang, principal of Richmond College Prep, credits Mindful Life with improving the social emotional skills of her students and therefore contributing to a healthier school atmosphere. In a May 2013 letter to Larochette, Chang wrote of “the calmness and consciousness that the students have learned to own.”
“The undeniable influence of Mindful Life in the daily interactions between students and their peers as well as the obvious respectfulness towards adults can easily be observed,” Chang wrote.
The students also speak highly of the program. Sixth grader Briggite said, “Mindful Life has impacted my life because I never thought I would be in such a friendly and calming environment with people who I don’t usually play with or get along with.”
“Mindfulness helps me to be in my mindful body and not hurt people when I get mad,” said Jalaeha, a fifth grader.
Alfredo, another sixth grader, said the program makes him feel safe.
Currently, Larochette is focused on trying to stabilize the programs at elementary schools, while also working on partnerships with Lovonnya DeJean Middle School in Richmond’s North District and Portola Middle School in El Cerrito where Mindful Life can continue to work with students until they enter high school.