Effort Less @ Holistic Life Foundation

Miss the previous Effort Less update? Read it here.

What can I say about my recent trip to Baltimore, MD where I visited with the creators of the non-profit organization Holistic Life Foundation (HLF): Brothers Ali and Atman Smith and Andres Gonzalez? It was a visit that silenced me with inspiration, not only for the beautiful work they do but for who they are and their loving, service-based approach.

We all had a similar reaction to one another, something along the lines of, Wow, we're not the only ones doing this. Meaning, the kind of work we're up to — even the personal side of it — is remarkably similar in process and outcome. There's a focus on youth from significantly challenged backgrounds, creating family-like connections, and employing various holistic tools and skills from our personal journey to encourage others to be the change.

These three have 100% commitment to their service path. There's not a second thought about it. It's something, which I can relate to, they feel they have to do just because, a missionless mission.

Service to "at risk" youth

The core of the HLF outreach surrounds an afterschool program that benefits more than 50 students who attend the Robert W. Coleman public elementary school on Windsor Ave., located in what Ali describes as, "the 'hood" of Baltimore. These students (pre-K to 5th grade) are dealing with financial issues. Challenged, sometimes unsafe living conditions. Broken families. And from what I understood, they tend to act out in class or are having a hard time learning.

  Atman Smith with students.

Atman Smith with students.

Ali, Atman, Andres, as well as a team of dedicated volunteers, support these "hard to reach" (the official term I overheard) kids in a way nobody else in the school does. They get to know them intimately: their problems, their home situation, their issues at school, and are skilled enough to see the diamond in the rough—the potential of each child.

There is time in the program for basic yoga, as well as meditation where Ali, Atman, and Andres share concepts like focusing attention and the breath to quiet mental activity. There is time for playing and goofing around. And there is time for formal, value-based team projects. All very similar, in principle, to what you read about with the kids I mentored in India at the leprosy community.

  Ali Smith leads a meditation.

Ali Smith leads a meditation.

As I tell others interested in service and as I observed with these three, the power of the HLF afterschool program is not totally about the activities and techniques—it's about who Ali, Atman, and Andres are, i.e., their characters and purity of intent. This is, primarily, what causes the kids to open up, get inspired, and change their ways.

As far as results? They've been impressive and were documented formally by Johns Hopkins University researchers, which you can read about here. From my general perspective, I see the trajectory of questionable futures getting altered for the better through hearts that become inspired.

A good example of this is found in the support team of volunteers who assist with the program.

This gentleman above, Darrius, is one of several volunteers who used to be in the program, who is now instructing students the same way he was.

I saw it firsthand. Ali, Atman, and Andres train their students to be future leaders, in a move towards sustainability. For example, those who were doing well with yoga were singled out and given the opportunity to lead certain breathing exercises or poses in front of the other students.


During my visit, I had the opportunity to facilitate a small exercise virtually identical to the one I did via Skype from Kenya with the Park Day School in California.

I exposed the students of the afterschool program to the reality of poverty overseas through some photos and videos taken from where I had been these past couple years, e.g., the one room schools with no windows, no electricity, and bare earth floors. The hole in the ground toilets. The sanitation issues in slums, and so on.

I doubt I will ever forget this. As I was going over the issue of no running water in homes in Africa and families having to fetch water daily, I learned later that one of the kids turned to Atman and whispered, "That's what I have to do."

Hard to believe isn't it? But, evidently, is not unheard of in the low income housing sections of Baltimore that are neglected by the local government, where the water can even be shut off.

On the opposite end, another student in the group who is teased in school for her small home, felt a sense of relief and gratitude after seeing how families of five or more, sometimes live in one room shanties. By contrast, her home is larger and far more luxurious.

This was the point. To encourage gratitude for what we have, which can be difficult without a contrast. If we don't feel gratitude for what we have, this then makes it easy to fixate on what we don't have and get upset about that.

Even though these kids I was with deal with their own significant challenges, all of us were sitting in a sturdy, concrete structure viewing a slideshow presentation on a digital projector screen, with a water fountain just down the street providing cool, on demand water. They might not have realized before how amazing that is.

This was, I think, the rowdiest group of students I've been with and it was not easy to hold their attention. However, when going over some particularly severe challenges in the slums, e.g., the build up of raw sewage outside of homes, they became captivated and silent. I noticed a few parents, too, who were coming to pick up their child, seated on the floor listening and attentive.

The next day after the presentation, the students broke into teams and were given poster board and markers to write down or draw things they are more grateful for in the wake of seeing the presentation. We saw new found appreciation for toilets, electricity, and interestingly, many wrote down their families.

The principle involved for all of us is that there is always gratitude to be found, no matter what our restricted circumstances are. If we get demoralized by comparing ourselves to others or frustrated with perceived deficiencies in our lives, we can get stuck in our worries and can suffer twice as much.

If we can find the blessings in our lives, truly appreciate what we have and see the sufficiency of it all, this is one of many ways to become at peace with the way things are. This is a particularly effective method to employ with those living in poverty, who are more prone to get demoralized by their tough circumstances.

My many thanks to Ali, Atman, and Andres for letting me stop by and share with the Holistic Life team.

Continue to next Effort Less update.

EventsC. LowmanComment