Leith Colton is Community Wellness Director at the Port Chester Carver Center; she is an LMSW, an EMT-B, and is enrolled in the Year-Long Certification Program at Mindful Schools.
How can we grow sustainable and enduring mindfulness programs for youth? In a recent interview, Mindful Schools educator Leith Colton described key stages in developing a thriving mindfulness program involving six schools and an entire community. Some of her most important realizations came through her own mindfulness practice as she built the program from the ground up, and then from the top down.
The Foundation: Roots in the Practice and the Community
In starting her program, Leith leveraged two key assets: her own commitment to mindfulness practice and her many community relationships.
Leith works in Port Chester, NY, a small suburb of New York City that is 75% Hispanic / Latino with 69% of the children qualifying for free and reduced lunch subsidy. When Leith was introduced to mindfulness at a DBT training (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), she realized it could marry the needs of her community with her own vision for a mental health program rooted in resilience, well-being, and strengths-based work.
Leith began to develop her own mindfulness practice. As it deepened, she understood how we all can benefit from contemplative skills, and how mindfulness practice had the potential to transform her community.
She started small, working from the bottom up. Leith built upon her relationships; first within her own organization, the Carver Center, a local community center in the heart of town, and offered a mindfulness program during their summer camp. Students and staff were overwhelmingly enthusiastic! Based on the network of relationships she had already established in Port Chester, word spread quickly.
Strategic Growth: Balancing Interest with Resources
Leith built gradually. She moved from small group settings to district-wide implementation by demonstrating the relevance of the practice from Kindergarten on up and collaborating with people who trusted her. Throughout that process, she worked hard to balance meeting the swell of interest with needs for sustainable growth and high quality programming.
Initially, she accepted every invitation that came. She facilitated the Morning Meeting at a 4th grade classroom. She got down on the rug with a Kindergarten class; offered support to individual teachers; and agreed to lead SEL programming for the Carver Center’s After School Program, which serves 1,000 children.
Thrilled with the growing demand, she recognized the need to temper the program’s expansion by setting realistic expectations and building a team of well-trained staff. She held meetings with teachers and community stakeholders to discuss the program, its promise, and the key factors that would support or limit its growth.
Key Partnerships: Finding Allies at the Top, Building a Team
The final ingredient in the success of Leith’s program was her ability to pivot from grassroots growth to a top-down, structured implementation. This required an emphasis on finding allies, developing those relationships, and building an effective team.
Within the first year of mindfulness programming at Carver Center, Leith deepened her relationship with the Assistant Superintendent, himself a long-time mindfulness practitioner. They began to discuss full district implementation, funding, and teacher training.
Building out a staff to offer mindfulness in all six school sites and at the Carver Center meant reaching not only classroom teachers but district paraprofessionals, art and music teachers, and appropriate volunteers committed to youth outreach. Leith set to work networking and offering training.
She created lunchtime groups with teachers and administrators to offer them support, where they felt safe to report what was really unfolding in their work lives. The feedback was heartfelt and inspiring. (To this day teachers continue to meet bi-weekly to share how mindfulness supports them professionally and personally.) She also trained volunteers to work with youth, and began to refer adults to Mindful Schools’ courses to build their own practice.
Presently, Leith has sixty-two adults – classroom and art teachers, administrators, and community volunteers – enrolled in the Mindfulness Educator Essentials course, having completed the Mindfulness Fundamentals. The Carver Center continues to provide the space, place and creative thinking vitally important to growing a vibrant and resilient community.
The needs and resources of each community and program are unique. Yet Leith’s story helps us to understand how we can move, one step at a time, from the foundation of our own practice to a strong, district-wide program.
Leith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is currently enrolled in the Mindful Schools Year-Long Certification Program.
Founded in 2007, Mindful Schools trains educators to integrate mindfulness into their work with youth. Educators trained by Mindful Schools have impacted over 750,000 students worldwide. You can learn more about our online course offerings, Mindfulness Fundamentals and Mindful Educator Essentials, and our Year-Long Certification at mindfulschools.org.