Almost six years after losing her son to a freak highway accident, Gloria O’Shea is asked whether it dulls the pain any, knowing that her son Sean’s legacy of teaching yoga to at-risk/low-income kids has spread beyond what were possibly her son’s wildest dreams.
“That’s hard to put into words, I feel exhausted a lot, but then I’ll think about why I’m doing it. The loss [of Sean] is giving me the strength to keep expanding this program and reach more kids,” says O’Shea, minutes before teaching yoga to a group of almost 20 elementary students at Paul Ecke Central Elementary School in Leucadia.
O’Shea usually doesn’t teach yoga. This is the first time in over a year she’s done so, but none of the 10 to 15 yoga teachers the Foundation has on staff were able to fill the void for this afternoon’s class, which is monitored by Leucadia resident, Sarah Garfield, co-founder of the non-profit Los Angelitos, which runs after-school activities like yoga and soccer for low-income kids who live in Encinitas (some of whom are not Latino).
“Twenty years from now Sean's loss will still hurt. The key is to keep staying busy,” says O’Shea. The lone full-time volunteer of the Foundation, O’Shea directs a team of 30 volunteers, including family members like Sean’s sister, Mercedes. And busy the O’Shea’s have been.
In only five years, the program has reached more than 6,000 low-income students, mostly throughout San Diego County, and most recently in Los Angeles County. This semester, 500 kids in 15 different schools will learn not only the moving meditative discipline of yoga, but also healthy nutrition and eco-conscious living.
More than 70 schools have participated in the Foundation’s program since 2008; three schools participated in the first year, reaching 80 students. The Foundation also teaches a program three times a week to kids with cancer at Rady’s Children Hospital.
As the kids begin filing into the multipurpose room, Gloria expresses some hesitation about how smoothly the class will go considering the considerable time between teaching classes.
“We want to keep this vision alive. Sean had been doing this since 2002, well before the foundation started. I want to keep it going for the memory,” says O’Shea, watching over the students cautiously, as some of them have ants in their pants, smacking each other with rolled-up yoga mats.
Both Garfield and O’Shea let the kids act a bit rambunctious. A mere ten minutes from now, most of the kids will be in an obedient near meditative state. An otherwise seemingly-random exercise in freedom movement therapy transforms into a synchronized, choreographed skilled performance of downward dogs and warriors.
Before the kids find some Zen, and while O’Shea is warning the kids about picking the right peanut butter—“Don’t eat Skippy, it’s loaded with hydrogenated fats,” she urges—Garfield says that she notices a difference even in the most unruly of kids.
“You can tell that some of the kids don’t really want to be there. They’re the ones that perhaps need yoga the most,” she says. “But this is the fourth week (classes are once a week) but I can already tell they’re getting better and better. I have seen a huge difference from the beginning. I hope that it continues after the first seven weeks,” Garfield adds, referring to the length of each semester the Foundation conducts classes.
Classes are paid for mostly by donations and fundraisers supporting the Foundation.
The Foundation officially celebrates its fifth year-anniversary with a fundraising event on November 17, at the Encinitas Community and Senior Center. Tickets are limited to 200 and will likely sell out, considering how immensely popular Sean was and how his life’s work and Gloria and the volunteers’ dedication have inspired dozens of yogis in North County.
“Use this breathing technique as a test to try and calm you,” O’Shea instructs the kids, as they are prone, laying back on their knees, arms outstretched in child’s pose. “I really want you to try this next time you have a big quiz or test coming up.
“Yoga….that’s your time and space that nobody can invade. Don’t notice how good or bad someone is at yoga. When we get to shivasana, the resting pose, it’s so important for you to take advantage of the technique. You’ll be the most relaxed,” coaches O’Shea.
Approximately 30 percent of the schools enrolled in the Foundation’s enrichment program, opt for both semesters of the school year. “Usually, the schools who go year-round, those are the schools with the most at-risk kids. The program is requested by the school psychologist or probation officers,” O’Shea says after the class is over and the students are much noticeably more calm.
Natasha Pantti-Dulberg, who until recently served as a licensed mental health clinician at New Dawn High School in San Diego’s Clairemont neighborhood, has seen a profound change in a several troubled students’ lives as a result of the program.
New Dawn’s student body is comprised of kids with emotional and behavioral problems severe enough to keep them from being successful in mainstream schools. Most come from low-income families.
“I saw an amazing transformation in some of the kids. The biggest impact for me was observing the class with the rehab specialist. You could tell that there was a really nice camaraderie between the kids; at first they were antsy but over time they were really open to the teacher’s suggestion that all they needed to do was take a breath, be still and have control over their emotions. It sounds simple but it’s really an important piece of the puzzle, some students think they have no control over their lives…it works.”
To order tickets for the Nov. 17 5-year anniversary Fundraiser or to find out more info, visit http://seanosheafoundation.org/.