“Yoga?! Puerto Ricans don’t do yoga.”
Sonia Vazquez, the principal of Donegan Elementary School on the South Side of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was incredulous when yoga instructor Kira Willey first proposed to teach Donegan students yoga and meditation. Willey thought she could help Donegan’s students develop crucial mindfulness skills that would help them cope with stress, and learn young how to self-regulate their emotions and reactions.
Donegan United Way Community School is housed in a brick building a short walk away from the monolithic relic of the Bethlehem’s old Steel Stacks, a reminder of the eastern Pennsylvanian city’s former industrial might as a center of steel production—and of its subsequent decline. Ninety-eight percent of the 479 children at Donegan come from families at or below the poverty level and qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Vazquez, an immaculately dressed, no-nonsense Puerto Rican woman wearing heels and a short brown bob, grew up two blocks down the street from the school, and spent her career in the Bethlehem school district, working for eight years as a disciplinarian. She became Donegan’s principal in 2012, and was fiercely dedicated to her students and passionate about improving the school—and willing to try new things to do so.
“These kids come from a high rate of poverty,” she says, “They deal with stress and difficulties and getting yelled at that all the time—I don’t want them to deal with that in school. I want them to have a safe place, a quiet place, more than anything, a positive place.”
Though she didn’t really think yoga had a snowflake’s chance in hell at Donegan, she gave Willey—and yoga—a shot.
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