Breathing Life into a Rundown Community

BY Emma-lee Luther

Callie* was bullied a lot because she didn’t have as much as the other kids.  One day, out of frustration, she grabbed a girl who was tormenting her and threw her up against the lockers.  Holding her by the collar, hurt and angry, she took a deep breath, “You’re lucky I meditate..”, she said. Callie then let her go, sat down, closed her eyes, and started mindful breathing and meditating.

West Baltimore is not usually known as a place of love, compassion, and mindfulness. This East Coast metropolis is consistently listed as one of  America’s most dangerous cities, with a violent crime rate much higher than the national average. Brothers Ali and Atman Smith grew up in this neighbourhood. As teenagers in the wake of a crack epidemic, they witnessed first-hand the devastating impact on their community. The under-resourced urban landscape eroded under the pressures of chronic interpersonal stress. They recognized their community was suffering from deep-seated apathy.

Image by Holistic Life Foundation

“When we were kids, it was like one big family. You could point at every house on the block and say who lived there. But the people who were making sure good values were being passed on, who were strong male role models, drugs took them away from the community. They were either locked up or dead. And women, too. A generation was raised by grandparents or foster parents.”

The Awe-Inspiring Team Breathing Life Back Into a Community

The Smith brothers, alongside school friend Andres Gonzalez, knew they could show another path was possible for their community. Out of love for their neighbourhood, they wanted to provide hope and share techniques for people to lead a more peaceful and positive life. This was the catalyst for creating the Holistic Life Foundation (HLF), a project demonstrating how compassionate action can help address the trauma on the streets of Baltimore.

‘We chose to bring mindfulness into the community because we saw what having the practice did for us and the transformation that it had with us physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally.’

The community faces a multitude of challenges ranging from poverty, violence, drugs, incarceration, and inadequate educational and health services. Through their work, the Holistic Life Foundation started to shine a light on the diagnosed and undiagnosed trauma that stems from living in this underprivileged environment. They highlighted how poverty is a barrier to accessing the resources required to deal with the stresses of life. By developing a program that shared self-regulation techniques, coping mechanisms, and social-emotional learning skills, they set out to show their community change was both accessible and achievable.

‘I don’t think there was ever a moment that we didn’t think it was going to work out because we did the practices ourselves and saw the benefits. I think if anything we didn’t think that it was going to work out so well and grow so fast.’

The founders have seen lasting changes within their community. Some of their original students are now teaching the at-risk youth in schools, recreation centres, group homes, and detention centres. A key to the Holistic Life Foundation’s success is a community helping itself, with new students able to identify with tutors who are like them and understand their experience. This has created a safe space for students to develop their inner lives through yoga, mindfulness, and self-care without stigma or judgment.

‘HLF lives the principle of Love in Action by embodying love in all that we do.  By providing tools to individuals to help them help themselves. We have noticed, and it’s been studied that their self-worth and self-love increase, and in turn their awareness of self increases. By reminding people to love themselves so that they can more easily love others.’

Spreading the love

Recognizing that the work had proven successful and been welcomed by youth, HLF  has expanded to facilitate adult programs in different settings, including drug treatment centres, mental illness facilities, colleges, senior centres, and wellness centres across the nation. HLF is also committed to developing high-quality evidence-based programs and curriculum to improve community well-being. Their work is now being used as a model in research and behavioural therapy studies.

The work of these three friends demonstrates how profound life changes can occur by spreading love, compassion, and mindfulness. Learning to calm our inner dialogue in the face of adversity can create a ripple effect, both within our relationships and the way we respond to the world around us.

*Callie’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

Since 2001, The Holistic Life Foundation (HLF) has provided yoga and mindfulness education for underserved residents in the Baltimore community and beyond. Through a comprehensive approach, children develop their inner lives through yoga, mindfulness, and self-care. HLF demonstrates a deep commitment to learning, community, and stewardship of the environment. Since its inception, HLF has facilitated yoga, mindfulness, and environmental-based programs for youth in schools, recreation centres, group homes, the Baltimore Juvenile Detention Center, and other venues.


Watch the short film “Holistic Life Foundation”, directed and produced by Chris Farina of Rosalia Films which tells the story of the Holistic Life Foundation through the eyes of its founders.

BY Emma-lee Luther



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