Inner Peace in the Inner City: Meditation Replaces Detention at Baltimore School

This week, children across America are returning to school from the holiday break. Most are dreading it….except perhaps the students at Coleman Elementary.

Based in inner city Baltimore, Coleman Elementary has become a sort of “oasis of calm” for its student body. It all started when the school introduced a “Mindful Moment” room in 2016. The room is replete with lamps, plush pillows, and yoga mats. It also smells of lavender oil.

Whenever children are disruptive at Coleman Elementary, they are not sent to detention or the Principal’s office. Instead, they head directly to the Mindful Moment Room. There, volunteers from the Holistic Life Foundation guide the children through a series of deep breathing exercises, meditation, and mindfulness activities. In the words of coordinator Kirk Phillips, “It’s amazing. You wouldn’t think that little kids would meditate in silence. [But] they do.”

By the time they leave the room, the children feel calm, “re-centered”, and at peace. As one child reports, “I did some deep breathing, had a little snack, and I got myself together. Then I apologized”. Hence, it is no surprise that the number of suspensions at Coleman Elementary dropped from 4 in 2015 to 0 in 2016.

Upon returning to class, the children can focus for longer periods of time. They are also better able to cope with anger, stress, and anxiety. One child explains, “When I get mad at something or somebody, I just take some deep breaths, keep doing my work and tune everyone out”. Another adds that during an exam “I took deep breaths to stay calm and just finish the test“.

But the benefits extend well beyond the schoolhouse. By applying the same meditative techniques, the kids can also achieve nirvana at home. Sadly, for the pupils at Coleman Elementary, “home” can be a source of “overwhelming external stimuli and trauma”. Over 80% come from households that struggle financially[xi]. Some live in boarded-up row houses without adequate food and electricity. Others have family members who are incarcerated or victims of violence. For such students, mindfulness activities are essential tools to “self-regulate and manage themselves and their emotions”—not just for a day but “hopefully for the rest of their lives”.

In light of the results at Coleman Elementary, the Holistic Life Foundation wants to “take their program far and wide”. Already, one inspired teacher at Minnesota’s Wayzata West Middle School has introduced meditation at the beginning and end of every class. Want to create a meditation nation? Give to the Holistic Life Foundation or our partners, the Alumni for Public Schools, and the Open Heart Spiritual Center!


Word on the Street: New Muppet Promotes Female Empowerment

It’s not easy being a girl – especially in Afghanistan. Due to deeply entrenched cultural and religious beliefs, Afghan females are widely viewed as subordinate to their male peers. As a result, 85% of females receive no formal education. Moreover, only 12 – 24% of females are literate – one of the lowest rates in the world.

But “sunny days” may be on their way to the central Asian country. Afghanistan’s version of Sesame Street (Baghch-e-Simsin) is debuting its first Afghan character: a 6 year old girl!

Zari (meaning “shimmering” in Pashto and Dari) is a curious, lively, and confident girl with purple skin and a mop of colorful hair. She wears causal and traditional clothes, as well as a headscarf where appropriate. With characters like Elmo and Big Bird, Zari will appear in all 26 episodes, doing segments on health, exercise, and well-being. She will also interview a doctor and other professionals to determine “what she would need to do to become one herself”.

Zari’s role is not just to teach children who may lack access to other educational content. As a girl, she is also there to promote female empowerment and serve as a role model. In the words of Sherri Westin, Vice President of Sesame Workshop, “She is modeling for young girls that it is wonderful to go to school and that it’s ok to dream about having a career”. Program Manager Clemence Quint adds “we thought it was really important to emphasize the fact that a little girl could do as much as everybody else”.

Zari also has the potential to influence the attitudes of Afghan males in a non-threatening way. Research suggests that depictions of confident, educated girls “help shaped boys’ opinions as well”. According to Westin, the first 4 seasons of Baghch-e-Simsin have already “begun to open the minds of Afghan fathers about the value of educating their daughters”.

Of course, Zari’s success in redefining gender norms will depend greatly on viewership. Currently, Baghch-e-Simsin is the most watched program among young children in Afghanistan. Approximately 81% of children aged 3 to 7 have seen the show. However, TVs are less common in rural areas, where Zari is perhaps needed most.

Still, we have great hope for little Zari (as well as Chamki in India and Kami in South Africa). Maybe one street can change an entire nation!

Want to support female education and empowerment? Please give to Sesame Workshop, Plan International, or our partners, WorldTeach, DIVAS/Florida Girls Mentoring Program, and Girls Incorporated of New Hampshire.


Stop the (March) Madness for the Sake of Young Athletes

Within days, March Madness will take over the United States. Sixty-eight teams will compete in the NCAA Basketball Championship—one of the most thrilling tournaments in college sports. But some people are calling for an end to the madness, specifically the “exploitation” of the athletes.

This “exploitation” takes many forms. First, the athletes are completely unpaid – in fact, accepting any payment or gifts renders them ineligible. Yet, the NCAA’s football and basketball programs alone generate over $6 billion in annual revenue! At that rate, experts estimate that the average Duke University basketball player deserves $1,025,656/year. But instead, the money funds multi-million dollar contracts for coaches, athletic directors, and NCAA executives (Alabama’s head football coach made $7.1 million in 2014).

Such “unpaid labor” becomes more egregious when you consider the athletes’ work ethic. According to a 2011 NCAA survey, elite college athletes spend an average of 43.3 hours/week on their sport including practices, games, and travel. They also average 38 hours/week on academics, bringing their total workweek to 81 hours! This far exceeds many full-jobs and leaves little—if any—time for paid work.

As a further blow, most athletes have major expenses (tuition, accommodations, food etc). After all, only the most talented athletes win a full scholarship….and even then, they fall short $3000. Other athletes receive an average scholarship of $10,400 or nothing at all. Unfortunately, tapping trust funds is rarely an option, as many college athletes “come from poverty-stricken communities”. Consequently, according to the National College Players Association (NCPA), as astonishing 86% of college athletes live below the poverty line.

Of course, collegiate sports also take a toll on athletes’ bodies (not just their bank accounts). According to the New York Post, “nearly all who play football — and, increasingly, basketball, baseball and other sports — will experience wear and tear on their bodies that they may not have anticipated”. This includes brain injuries (from concussions), shattered bones, worn-out joints, and torn muscles, ligaments and tendons. Indeed, athletes “risk life-altering injuries [or death] every time they go on the field or court”.

In its defence, the NCAA notes that member schools give over $2.7 billion in athletic scholarships to 150,000 students annually. Some also provide tutoring and life skill training.

The NCAA itself offers funds for student assistance, academic enhancement, and training. It provides paid internships at its Indianapolis headquarters. It finances research into player wellness and safety. And for those unlucky athletes who sustain a catastrophic injury during play, the NCAA sponsors an insurance program.

But perhaps most importantly, in its view, the NCAA provides “opportunities and experiences“. By funding championships in 24 sports, the NCAA give players the exposure needed to “parlay their college records into offers from professional sports teams” (though this benefits only 1.2% of men’s basketball players and 1.6% of football players). The NCAA also enables athletes to play the sports they love and “enhance their overall college experience“.

As a former NCAA athlete, I agree that playing softball was greatly enriching. Some of my best college memories are of practicing at sunrise, traveling to Florida for spring training, and clinching the conference championship. But I can also attest to the financial struggles, long hours, and injuries of college athletes. For this reason, I think we must “go to bat” for athlete rights and interests.

To get the ball rolling, groups have advanced some creative ideas. The NCPA, among other things, has proposed that the NCAA use its $11 billion contract with CBS to provide “truly full” athletic scholarships. The money could also cover graduation bonuses to athletes who complete their degrees. Others have called for reduced contact during practices and an NCAA fund that athletes could access long after college, “when their injuries come back to bite them”. Finally, a group of Northwestern University football players (unsuccessfully) petitioned for the right to unionize and collectively bargain.

The ball is now in the NCAA’s court! If you want to support youth athletics, please give to our partners, Memphis Athletic Ministries, Tacoma Baptist Athletics, and Girls on the Run of Puget Sound.

Speaking Up for Girls’ Education

paVanThis Monday marked the 3 month anniversary of the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping in Nigeria. Orchestrated by Boko Haram, an Islamic Jihadist and terrorist organization, the event involved the kidnapping of over 200 girls from a boarding school in the northeast of the country.

Since then, only a small fraction of the girls have escaped. The remaining girls are believed to be held in capacity in the Sambisa forest, more than 200 miles (320 km) away. Parents of the victims fear that the girls will not return and will be raped or involuntarily married off to movement fighters. Western diplomats are also losing hope, as efforts to locate the girls have barely progressed since May.

However, information has surfaced about the motivation behind the kidnappings. In a series of videos, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has claimed that he will “sell them in the marketplace” as slaves. Shekau has also explained that he will release the girls in exchange for the group’s fighters in Nigerian jails (“Bring Back Our Girls… bring back our army”). Finally, any remaining girls will “remain slaves with us.”

But why did Boko Haram specifically target female students? The group believes that Nigeria should be a pure Islamic caliphate governed by strict Sharia law.  Women should be “at home raising children and looking after their husbands, not at school learning to read and write”. In fact, the name Boko Haram roughly translates to “western education is a sin”.

Regrettably, the situation in Nigeria is not unique. Girls in numerous countries around the world are denied the right to an education. According to Save the Children, “social traditions and deep-rooted religious and cultural beliefs are most often the barriers”. For example, in the Sahel and Middle East, a dowry system encourages girls to leave their studies. In the Horn of Africa, girls avoid walking to school for fear of abduction for marriage. And in parts of Latin America, indigenous girls are “often forced [to care for] siblings, marry early, or leave school to help support the family”. As a result, studies suggest that over 70% of the 125 million children not in school are girls.

These girls pay a steep price for their absence. Research suggests that educated females “lead healthier lives and have healthier families”, with fewer children. They have increased awareness of their rights and the “institutions established to protect and enforce them”, i.e. from violence, rape, and genital mutilation. Furthermore, they earn higher wages and are more productive workers, “boost(ing) their country’s entire economy”.  In these regards, education truly is “a fundamental tool of empowerment and a vehicle through which girls realize their full potential”.

Malala Yousafzai, 17, knows the power of education. Shot by the Taliban in 2012 for her determination to attend school, she is now a leading global education advocate. Last weekend, Malala visited the parents of the kidnapped Nigerian school girls. She stated “I did not think that just one year after my UN speech, more than 200 girls would be kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram simply for wanting to go to school. I can see those girls as my sisters … and I’m going to speak up for them until they are released”.

We should all speak up for the Chibok schoolgirls and all girls who want an education. That means more than joining a twitter campaign (#bringbackourgirls). It means pressuring our governments and international organizations to take action. It also means donating to charities like the Malala Fund, Share in Africa, Girls Education International, and our partners, World Teach and Education For All Children.

For more information on girls’ education, please click here.

Flickr photo credit: paVan


Early Childhood Education: Small Students, Big Returns

edLast week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio released his much-anticipated preliminary budget.  As promised, he earmarked $530 million for universal pre-kindergarten (classroom programs for children under six). The commitment is expected to make pre-kindergarten the “centerpiece” of de Blasio’s first term.

But de Blasio is not alone in his support of early childhood education. Shortly after his inauguration, President Obama invested $10 billion in the cause via the 2009 stimulus package. He also expressed a desire to expand pre-kindergarten (with or without congress) in last month’s State of the Union address.

Indeed, early childhood education is “having a moment” in the United States. But is it warranted? Does formal education for young children actually produce significant beneficial effects?

A vast – and growing – body of research suggests “yes”. Early education promotes the formation of neural pathways in young minds, when they are most receptive to learning. Such pathways allow children to develop key academic, social, and cognitive skills. In this way, early childhood education increases student confidence and school readiness.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children
The benefits of early childhood education also persist over time. According to longitudinal studies, children who participate in early education programs demonstrate higher academic achievement, reduced grade repetition and drop-outs, and higher social and emotional functioning as teenagers. They also enjoy higher productivity, increased earning potential, and thus, greater self-sufficiency as adults. For these reasons, the estimated return on investment of early childhood education is $3 to $16 for every $1 spent.

But there is a key caveat. For early childhood education to have maximal impact, the programs must be high-quality. In other words, they must be well-designed and taught by top-rate teachers. Unfortunately, only 20 US states require all pre-kindergarten teachers to hold bachelor degrees. Furthermore, teachers with degrees are less inclined to work in early childhood education, as the pay is often lower. As a result, experts maintain that many pre-kindergarten teachers are poorly trained, particularly in age-appropriate strategies for teaching math and literacy.

Thus, funding for early childhood education should aim to do more than broaden access. It should also strive to produce better teachers, curricula, and teaching approaches. With a few tweaks, de Blasio and Obama’s proposed initiatives could produce such outcomes (as in New Jersey). However, private actors—such as non-profits and foundations—could also play an instrumental role.

To learn more about early childhood education, please click here. To support the cause, please donate to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the Children’s Defense Fund, or our partners, Junior Achievement and the Newmarket Community Education Partnership.

Flickr Photo Credit: Eric Costello

Op4G's $500 Sweepstakes Winner: Big Brothers Big Sisters Lone Star!

5Do you donate to the Non-Profit of the Month? This November, that lucky non-profit will be Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) Lone Star!

BBBS Lone Star represents the Texas chapters of Big Brothers Big Sisters, the nation’s largest volunteer supported mentoring network. The non-profits work by matching adult volunteers (“Bigs”) with children (“Littles”) aged 6 to 18, based on the children’s unique needs. It then provides ongoing support and supervision to the Bigs and Littles, as well as the Littles’ families.

The model aims to provide children with strong and enduring relationships with adult role models. This, in turn, helps children develop greater confidence, set higher aspirations, avoid risky behaviors, and achieve educational success.

To learn more, or to donate to BBBS Lone Star, please click here.

Flickr photo credit: ctj71081


Tukwila Children's Foundation – A Small Non-Profit Doing Big Things

7Op4G is delighted to announce our Non-Profit of the Month: the Tukwila Children’s Foundation!

Created by a group of local citizens in 2002, the Tukwila Children’s Foundation aims to meet the unmet daily needs of the children of Tukwila, Washington. These needs include clothing, school supplies, scholarships, personal hygiene items, and miscellaneous goods (such as alarms clocks). The goal is to ensure that all of Tukwila’s children will have the experiences, opportunities, and tools to succeed; grow to care about themselves and others; and become involved in their communities.

To learn more about the Tukwila Children’s Foundation and how you can support them, please visit their site or sign up with Op4G.

Flickr photo credit: Jeffrey Pott

Op4G Volunteer of the Month: Roxanne Splett-Young!

schoolOp4G would like to recognize Roxanne Splett-Young, a sweepstakes winner! Thanks to Roxanne, the Northgate PTA received all funds donated to the “non-profit of the month” in April.

The Northgate PTA is the Parent Teacher Association for the Northgate Elementary School in Seattle, Washington. Roxanne selected Northgate PTA as her non-profit of choice as it was a “great and easy way” to support her daughter’s school. This support, she felt, was especially important given recent funding cuts and the school’s high percentage of ESL students and free/reduced lunches.

Roxanne first learned about Op4G from a fellow member of the PTA. She joined the Op4G panel shortly thereafter, in late 2010. Since then, Roxanne has earned approximately $100 for the Northgate PTA and has encouraged the entire association to join. In her view, “Programs like Op4G are great because there is no cost for families and yet there can be a return… It is easy and you can decide how time consuming it will be”.

In addition to donating through Op4G, Roxanne volunteers for the Northgate Reads program. She also supports the PTA of her children’s current school. Congratulations again to Roxanne Splett-Young!

Flickr photo credit: Bob Kelly

Op4G $500 Winner: Pacific Science Center!

scienceThe Pacific Science Center is Op4G’s $500 Sweepstakes Winner for April! Based in Seattle, the Op4G partner strives to “bring science to life” and “inspire creativity to fuel tomorrow’s innovations”. Their award-winning, interactive exhibits reach more than 1.3 million people across Washington each year — in their communities, classrooms and on the Pacific Science Center campus – and allow them to wander among tropical butterflies, touch live marine animals, explore distant galaxies, and experience a giant-screen IMAX film. The Pacific Science Center is a private not-for-profit.

To offer your support, please click here or complete Op4G surveys for the Center today!

Flickr photo credit: Horia Varian

Op4G's Non-Profit of the Month: Northgate Elementary PTA!

10The Northgate Elementary Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) is Op4G’s Non-Profit of the Month! Located in Seattle, Washington, the Northgate Elementary School is a K-6 school with over 300 students. It prides itself on offering the Powerful Readers program, 1 on 1 tutoring, a Spanish literacy program, and on-site math coaches. Still, the school is always looking to further ways to improve student achievement! To help, please complete Op4G surveys on behalf of the Northgate PTA.

Flickr photo credit: Lee Cannon