Each quarter, Printfresh works with a local partner to support innovative and expressive programming in our community and foster creativity in Philadelphia's youth. This quarter, we are proud to announce that we're partnering with Inner Strength Foundation, an organization that aims to support the youth of today through mindfulness and a developmental perspective on life.
Below, read the interview between our Founder and Creative Director, Amy Voloshin, and Inner Strength Foundation's Founder & Executive Director, Amy Edelstein.
Mindfulness is becoming a popular topic and emerging in progressive schools. We’re so taken with your organization and the good you're doing for mental health in classrooms. What made you get into the mindfulness field?
I was, relatively speaking, an early adopter. I started my own explorations of mindfulness tools when I was a high school student at a big Pittsburgh school in 1978. That was a time of cultural cynicism, post-Watergate, and I was looking for deeper answers as well as wanting to explore philosophy and the nature of human consciousness. I was a big reader, found a book, and taught myself. I began my more serious mindfulness practice in 1982, engaging in my first ten-day retreat, which led to multiple retreats, a three-month silent retreat, and study of various techniques both in the US and in Asia. Next thing I know, it’s 35 years later, and I’ve had the good fortune and privilege of being able to live a life of ongoing immersion, including teaching mindfulness techniques internationally for the last couple decades.
Tell me about the name, why Inner Strength Foundation?
I believe our ability to realize our higher potential rests on a foundation of inner strength. The organization’s tagline is “cultivating inner strength for outer stability.” In our culture, we’re expected to be strong and resilient, wise and caring but we aren’t taught how to develop those capacities. The organization was formed with programming based on the best of what I’ve learned over more than three decades in the field, with the goal to empower adolescents to be able to manage complexity, care for themselves and others, and regulate their responses when their thoughts and emotions challenge them.
What is a good age for someone to start practicing mindfulness?
There are basic breath exercises that even elementary school age children can learn but to do the more complex reflective thinking that Inner Strength teaches, a youth needs to be in their mid-teens. By then, they will have developed the capacity to self reflect and to be able to observe their thoughts and feelings without identifying with them. In high school, kids are starting to ask the bigger questions of life—"why am I here, who am I, what's my purpose"—and they're more ready for mature self-discovery. We don't want them having to rely on Google for life advice and insight.
What are some things that teens can do even if they don’t have a program at their school to learn more mindfulness techniques?
Inner Strength has a free resource library online. Students can access audios to work with and videos to educate and inspire them with what’s possible. There are a variety of online resources, apps, and books designed especially for teens. I encourage them to explore and experiment and also to approach their guidance counselors and request that the school bring in a program so students can learn from a real person who can answer their questions and who knows what they are doing. Mindfulness is simple and it is also powerful. It is very helpful to have an experienced instructor to help guide the students and teach them how to be gentle with themselves.
What kind of results are you seeing in the schools you work with?
The programming has had a tremendous impact releasing higher academic capacities in students like Hernan. As this bright Latinx youth who suffered from anxiety and low self-esteem prepared for his International Baccalaureate (IB) oral exams on Shakespeare, he recalled feeling nervous, explaining, “I always think to myself, I can’t do it. I’m not smart like the other kids. My legs were shaking and my mind was filled with all kinds of dark thoughts.” Yet, instead of giving in to his negative beliefs, Hernan used his Inner Strength tools. He practiced two exercises to be objective about his thought process and to send himself love and kindness. After just a couple minutes of pause and focus, he was relaxed, steady, and happy, ready to walk into his exam. His teacher noticed the difference immediately. She welled up in tears as she described what happened next, “Hernan blew us all away. He had so much to say that was completely authentic, well-thought through, complex, and original…In 25 years, I’ve never heard any student present at that level. It was like he was speaking from a whole different part of himself!”
It also has an effect on students who are challenged by traumatic experiences. Rachelle was a quiet girl. She sat in the back of the class and didn’t seem interested in the mindfulness exercises at all. She didn’t participate in the class discussions or in the exercises. But on her end of program essay she wrote, “This semester we had a sudden death in the family. Everyone in my family was freaking out. Usually in these situations, I fall apart and everyone has to help me. This time, I went up to my room and did the breath exercises I learned in the Inner Strength program. Then I taught my whole family. These exercises helped all of us get through a very hard time. I was able to stay on top of all the schoolwork I needed to do in the midst of everything. I want to be an aeronautical engineer. Using these tools gave me confidence that I have something to offer and I can keep on track for my higher goals even when life is hard.”
We see whole classrooms calm down and develop a more friendly and supportive atmosphere. This helps students learn and take risks exploring questions they are curious about. We have a research study on the program which shows improvement in self-regulation and in self-compassion, two measures which are important for mental and behavioural health as well as for improved academic outcomes.
How are you looking for your organization to grow in the next 3 years?
While we reach 1900 teenagers a year, we hope to be able to reach every high school student in the city. That’s a big goal! But we’ll get there step by step. We are looking for business and philanthropic sponsors now so over the next three years we’ll be able to build the infrastructure to double the number of students we reach, while continuing to measure outcomes in a rigorous way. We will also be building out Secondary Stress programs for teachers to help provide them with support, which in turns helps the students. I’m also excited that we’re beginning to design an Inner Strength app to enable the students to stay in touch with each other and with the program, helping extend their training well beyond the 12 weeks we are with them.
I noticed on your site you offer a weekday meditation online, what’s that like?
Everyone is welcome to join in. I give a minute or two of instruction then we sit quietly for 30 minutes. Many people like to meditate but they don’t have the support of a group to practice with. This enables people to join in by phone or video with a little instruction and the shared camaraderie.
Anything else you would like to add?
I encourage anyone who wants to support youth to encourage your neighborhood school, rec center, or after school program to bring in some mindful awareness tools for their students. Not every child will like it or benefit from it but many will. These are tools that are simple to learn and can provide a lifetime of support, strength, and discovery.
To learn more about Inner Strength Foundation, visit www.innerstrengthfoundation.net. And remember, every purchase you make at Printfresh over the next couple months will help support the amazing work they're doing for Philadelphia students.
Photos: Natalie Piserchio