After securing a position with Transformation Yoga Project, I immediately began pushing to initiate a yoga program within the infamous walls of Delaware County's Juvenile Detention Center in Lima. Because I'm originally from Delco and spent my teen years cycling in and out of the Children and Youth Services system, I felt a very strong pull to make this aspiration into a reality.
Most of the people I've talked to about my desire to get inside Delco's Detention Center have responded with looks of abject horror or, worse yet, warnings about "those kids" and how they're "different" from the teens I'm accustomed to working with at the Chester and Montgomery County youth centers. Terms such as "more hardened" and "dangerous" were tossed at me like grenades of discouragement. Even staff members at other facilities felt the need to "warn" me about the perils I should expect.
Well, with the help of Transformation Yoga Project's Prison Yoga Director Brianne Murphy, all of the determination, lobbying, and emotional preparation finally came to fruition in August of 2015. Since then, I've been blessed enough to be at the facility once a week in order to facilitate yoga for these incredibly inspiring incarcerated teens.
Delaware County's Juvenile Detention Center, otherwise known as Lima, has a really bad rap. I believe this is largely due to environmental reasons. First of all, this isn't a "youth center". It's a prison. It makes the facility in Chester County look like the Ritz Carlton. It is dank, dirty, disgusting, depressing, and completely rundown. There's barbed wire everywhere, no sunlight, very few enrichment programs, and extremely crowded conditions. These children - and that's what they are, children - are locked up like animals. Is it any wonder if they tend to act accordingly?
On my first tour through the facility, I had to choke back tears while getting an insider look at the horrendous cells and sunless corridors where these kids are contained. When asked about the maximum capacity, a staff member coolly replied - without so much as blinking an eye - "There is none. We just keep taking 'em in. The kids have to sleep on the floor." I was speechless and could only take a shaky breath in response as I fought to keep my emotions in check.
Regardless of these inescapable facts, I walked into Lima to teach my first class with an open mind and an open heart. As always, the teens welcomed me with respect, kindness, and gratitude. The staff have been equally as receptive and many choose to participate in the practice right alongside of the kids on a weekly basis.
The culture began to shift almost immediately. It wasn't long before the administration began receiving rave reports. In September, Lima approached us with a request to double our weekly class load. That's when we began integrating Transformation Yoga Project's program into their physical education curriculum.
Every Tuesday morning, I facilitate four back-to-back-to-back-to-back classes. Although it sounds absolutely exhausting, allow me to assure you; it's the most fulfilling work I've ever done. Teaching incarcerated kids is more than a job. It's my purpose in life.
It's hard to explain what comes over me while I'm there with them. It can only be described as spiritual. I'm so in every moment. Nothing else exists but the clarity of each breath. The beauty and light of everyone and everything is all-encompassing.
It's been a coming-home for me, both literally and metaphorically. I'm back in Delaware County, but instead of revisiting my traumatic childhood, I'm reinventing the narrative. To quote Enso's Gwen Soffer, I'm "making the mistake part of the design" while using the past as a lesson for the present.
When I'm teaching at Lima, I know with every ounce of my being that I've found my true calling in life. For this, I am grateful.
Join Gwen Soffer and Alexis Donahue for a Community Class at Enso
319B W. State Street
Media, PA 19063
Friday, January 8th 6:00-7:30pm
Enjoy community, gentle yoga, and refreshments
This Donation-based Class will serve to support Transformation Yoga Project's Juvenile Justice Programs.