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Mindful : April 2013
Baltimore is a city of corners and alleys. At night, the corners in the Western District are lit by the blue glow of police cameras, a crime deterrent. The alleys run through the middle of block after block of Baltimore’s famous row houses, providing sheltered places for kids to play and a quick exit for those with something to run from. The uncharitable might call it a ghetto. The West- ern District in particular has been beset by poverty, drug abuse, and violence: 34% of the children here, most of them African American, live below the poverty line, compared to 14% in the rest of the state. And while some of the homes here a re well kept—the paint fresh, lawns mowed—many blocks are punctuated with abandoned properties, “the vaca nts,” their windows boarded. The house at 2008 North Smallwood lies in the middle of one of these blocks. This is where broth- ers Ali and Atman Smith grew up. And it’s here that, with their friend Andres “A ndy” Gonzalez, they formed the non-profit Holistic Life Foundation (HLF) in 2001. Starting with 20 fifth-g rade boys, the foundation’s after-school program introduced yoga, mindfulness, urban gardening, and teamwork to children in the neighborhood in an effort to revive the community through its youngest, most vulnerable members. In a city where the dropout rate for high school students is routinely higher than 50%, 19 of those first 20 boys graduated and the other got his GED. Hundreds of youngsters have now passed through the program. And researchers f rom Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Penn State University have begun to study the work being done by the guys at Holistic Life. They’re pay- ing special attention to the program’s effect on chil- dren’s moods, relationships with peers and teachers, and emotional self-regulation. After more than a decade, Ali, Atman, and Andy’s work is getting no- ticed beyond the blocks of the Western District. Down a narrow alley off North Smallwood is The Quiet Place. It’s a former vaca nt lot, hidden by rows of old houses and decaying cement wa lls, trans- formed into a park. HLF did this. There are benches, barbecue grills, garbage ca ns, blue rain ba rrels, a nd a vegetable ga rden g rowing tomatoes, basil, beets, cucumbers, peppers, watermelons, cantaloupes, sage, cila ntro, lilies, lavender, and a whole bunch of mint. “The city cuts the grass but they’re being kind of slow about it this yea r,” Ali says. At 36, he has a large presence, laid-back but seri- ous. He’s bald, with a beard that frames his cheeks and chin. He dresses casually. On this hot summer day, he’s in a T-shirt and shiny gold basketball shorts. Ali’s cell phone rings. “ Killer Ca m!” he says, smil- ing. “ Hey, you comin’ tomorrow, right? Just listen to your mother, please. Just listen to your mother so you can come tomorrow.” Tomorrow is a cookout at The Quiet Place, orga nized by HLF, a chance for the → The founders of the Holistic Life Foundation, from left: Andy Gonzalez, Ali Smith, and Atman Smith. April 2013 mindful 43