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South Jersey’s Project Little Warriors arms kids with mindfulness and yoga mats

Project Little Warriors aims to give students, particularly those of color, the tools inherent in yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness practices. The organization struggled during the pandemic.

James Gaddy leads a yoga session during Little Warriors 'Mindful Adventure Camp' at Glisten Fitness in Winslow Township, N.J.
James Gaddy leads a yoga session during Little Warriors 'Mindful Adventure Camp' at Glisten Fitness in Winslow Township, N.J.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

James Gaddy was discouraged. He’d been working hard to help a small group of Camden elementary school students learn mindfulness techniques, but the kids weren’t all that interested in yoga and meditation.

He told Marialana “Ria” Curry, his best friend, that he might shut down his fledgling after-school program.

“I remember saying to him, ’You’re going to give up on them — the same way people gave up on you?’ ” Curry recalled.

“Ria challenged me,” said Gaddy, who grew up with a father in jail and a physically abusive stepfather at home while facing the challenges of being born a biracial person in America.

“The next day,” Curry said, “I was Googling how to set up a nonprofit organization.”

Gaddy and Curry cofounded Project Little Warriors (PLW) in 2018 to train students, especially students of color, to embrace and use the physical and mental health tools offered by yoga, meditation, journal writing, and other mindfulness practices.

“It was amazing,” said Curry, a yoga teacher, social media marketer, and PLW’s vice president. “Within two years we were in about 10 different schools serving over 400 students a week.”

Research suggests meditation and other mindfulness practices are generally helpful in reducing stress and can be particularly useful for youngsters and adults impacted by racism, or living in impoverished, violence-plagued neighborhoods. Nevertheless, these universally beneficial practices are seen by some as the domain of white millennials, suburban moms, and ancient hippies.

“Mindfulness and meditation and self-love intertwine within your mental health and enable you to take on other challenges ... in every aspect of your life,” said Curry, who’s 23 and lives in Maple Shade, Burlington County.

“Yoga allowed me to gain control of my life by gaining control of my body and my mind,” said Gaddy, 34. A yoga instructor and personal trainer, he grew up in the South and lives in Oaklyn, Camden County.

“Yoga,” he said, “gave me the chance to get to know who I was and ‘officially’ be me.”

Gaddy talked a lot about this sort of transformative power while guiding a dozen Catholic school kids from Camden and Pennsauken through PLW’s Mindful Adventure Camp on July 6.

The daylong event was hosted by Glisten, a rustic outdoor fitness facility on Virginia Lake. The densely wooded site is not far — but seems a world away — from Route 73 in suburban Winslow Township, Camden County.

“We have 130 acres and the lake is about a quarter of a mile long,” said Kym Stone, who with her husband Paul opened Glisten shortly after Memorial Day 2020. The pandemic was raging and a chance conversation with a mutual friend connected her with Gaddy; he said the idea for the Adventure Camp “grew organically” from their conversations, and the first was held, with restrictions, in the summer of 2020.

“As many people as possible need to experience this place, and that is why Project Little Warriors is such a perfect fit,” said Stone, who pitched in, along with two of her children, at the July 6 camp.

Curry, PLW staff, and volunteers also worked with the kids as Gaddy led yoga classes on the beach and journal writing sessions under the trees, where the young writers reclined in brightly colored hammocks.

The camp also included hikes through the woods surrounding the lake — guides coaxed the kids to stop, look, and listen to nature ― followed by paddle-boarding and swimming in the afternoon. The campers were presented with challenges large (a rope swing over the water) and small (write a word describing yourself); all of the activities were rich with opportunities for the kids to express themselves, and to be heard.

“What makes you scared?” Tierney Eifert, a therapist who is PLW’s clinical director, asked a group at one writing session.

“I’m scared something might come out of the woods,” a camper said.

“Talking about what scares you or bringing it to light can make it less scary,” said Eifert. “If you share it, you’re not alone any more.”

Interviewed after the session, Eifert said she once worked with a child who told her that while hearing gunshots near her home she stayed calm through a deep-breathing practice.

“We can’t change these kids’ situations, but we can give them skills,” said Eifert. “Their families may not be able to afford yoga classes. Some of the kids may be facing trauma. This is an essential service, especially during COVID.”

As the morning yoga session got underway, a delightful breeze rolled off the lake.

“Notice how the wind feels. You’ll hear that word notice a lot today,” said Gaddy, clad in a sleeveless T-shirt with the PLW logo on the front and “Mr. Yogi” on the back.

“I want you to think about that yoga mat being a magic carpet, taking you wherever you want to go, by focusing on your breathing,” he said.

After the session, 12-year-old Ronell Munsof North Camden was enthusiastic.

“This is my first time here, and it’s amazing,” he said. “I’ve never done yoga before. I’ve actually never done camping of any sort, and I’ve never been to a lake, so this is all new to me.

“I can’t wait to do the rope swing.”

Nick Dennery, a Rowan University business major who first encountered PLW as a volunteer, now works as the organization’s treasurer. He was among the staffers who went along with the kids on the late-morning hike.

“I’m super-excited to be part of all this,” Dennery, 20, said. “James is high-energy, positive, and outgoing. He connects so well, especially with younger people.”

When the pandemic hit last year, disruptions and closures — of yoga studios, schools, event spaces, and businesses — stymied PLW’s work, as well as its fund-raising and expansion efforts. But the sense that the worst of the crisis has passed, along with the easing of restrictions, and the likelihood of schools fully reopening in September, has the organization hoping to grow again.

Laura Fern, the founding principal of Uncommon Schools Copewood Elementary, in Camden, was an early client of PLW and continues to utilize its services. She’s also a major fan of Curry’s and Gaddy’s.

“James and Ria and their team earned my trust, and I could see how our kids gravitated to them,” Fern said. “Their belief in the kids is so undeniable. That’s the type of belief our kids deserve.”

That commitment also inspired Kathy Tully, a businesswoman and mother of two who lives in Haddonfield and is a PLW donor, as well as a volunteer. And like Curry, Stone, Eifert, and Fern, Tully got connected to the organization’s leaders as a citizen of the fitness, yoga, and mindfulness world.

“The project spoke to me mostly because they’re helping young students take the reins of their own mental well-being,” she said, noting that PLW provides mindfulness-related professional development workshops for teachers as well.

Curry said that while many schools in the region express interest, there’s often a misconception that a single event or a special appearance by an instructor are all students need to get started.

But yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness techniques are a practice that must be sustained in order to be effective.

“Our greatest hindrance is financial,” Gaddy said. “But we’re figuring out how to navigate our journey. We have a mission to do.”