Holistic Life Foundation Offers Mindful Programs in Schools

What do kids growing up in the toughest parts of inner-city Baltimore need most? Three guys returned to find out—and changed lives and a neighborhood in the process.

The founders of the Holistic Life Foundation, from left: Andy Gonzalez, Ali Smith, and Atman Smith.

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 Western 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 are well kept—the paint fresh, lawns mowed—many blocks are punctuated with abandoned properties, “the vacants,” their windows boarded.

The house at 2008 North Smallwood lies in the middle of one of these blocks. This is where brothers Ali and Atman Smith grew up. And it’s here that, with their friend Andres “Andy” Gonzalez, they formed the non-profit Holistic Life Foundation (HLF) in 2001.

Starting with 20 fifth-grade 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 from 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 paying special attention to the program’s effect on children’s moods, relationships with peers and teachers, and emotional self-regulation. After more than a decade, Ali, Atman, and Andy’s work is getting noticed beyond the blocks of the Western District.

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Down a narrow alley off North Smallwood is The Quiet Place. It’s a former vacant lot, hidden by rows of old houses and decaying cement walls, transformed into a park. HLF did this. There are benches, barbecue grills, garbage cans, blue rain barrels, and a vegetable garden growing tomatoes, basil, beets, cucumbers, peppers, watermelons, cantaloupes, sage, cilantro, lilies, lavender, and a whole bunch of mint.

“The city cuts the grass but they’re being kind of slow about it this year,” Ali says.

At 36, he has a large presence, laid-back but serious. 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 Cam!” he says, smiling. “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, organized by HLF, a chance for the community to get together. Ali signs off, “All right, that’s what’s up.”

A lean, athletic man, looking like a young Bob Marley with short, messy dreads, walks up to Ali’s red Chevy Trailblazer. It’s Atman. He’s 34, with a radiating calm like his brother’s, dressed casual and comfortable. The bumper sticker on the back of Atman’s black Nissan XTerra is a Marley quote: “None but ourselves can free our mind.”

Atman climbs into the Trailblazer. He says to Ali, “Thank you, chauffeur.”

Ali says, “You know how I do. Call me Jeeves.”

Then Andy jumps in the car. He’s 33, quick to smile, with a thin beard and long hair tied back in a ponytail. Ali points the car downtown, with Kanye West’s summer smash “Mercy” playing on the stereo.

Ali muses on how long a particular home on North Smallwood has been vacant. “That one on the corner, remember the guy who had the dog up on the roof?” he asks. He estimates it’s been empty since he was a child. “Maybe there’s two people living on this block—at the most,” he says. Occasional gaps in the rows of homes begin to appear. “These spaces,” Andy says, “are because the houses just kind of collapsed.”

The blocks multiply, empty lots increase, and the city begins to resemble a war zone.

Darrius Douglas, 22, was in the first Holistic Life Foundation program, which was offered after school at Windsor Hills Elementary in Baltimore’s North Smallwood neighborhood. He now teaches with HLF as a volunteer. “People wonder why a lot of black guys end up in the streets,” he says. “That’s cause they don’t have nothing in their life.”
Darrius Douglas, 22, was in the first Holistic Life Foundation program, which was offered after school at Windsor Hills Elementary in Baltimore’s North Smallwood neighborhood. He now teaches with HLF as a volunteer. “People wonder why a lot of black guys end up in the streets,” he says. “That’s cause they don’t have nothing in their life.”

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Ali and Atman call their parents hippies. But when they were growing up, yoga wasn’t something they talked about with their friends. “If we were vegan and did yoga now we’d be the coolest kids on the planet, but back then, nobody was doing it,” says Ali. It was their father, Meredith “Mert” Smith, a basketball coach at Southern High School, and their godfather, Will Joyner, who taught them. Ali says it was normal to see his father in a headstand down in the basement. “We walked on past, went into the TV room to watch Saturday-morning cartoons, and when he was done he’d come join us.”

Ali and Atman went to a Quaker school in a middle-class neighborhood, the Friends School of Baltimore, and his sons, Asuman and Amar, go there now. “Quaker school was kinda cool. It reinforced the meditation stuff we’d learned,” says Ali. “We did meaningful worship, where you had your moment of silence, where you sat and kinda reflected on things.”

Though Ali and Atman’s mother, Fredine “Cassie” Smith, and Mert divorced in 1986