28 Mar 2018

Mindfulness and marginalised youth

From Nine To Noon, 11:26 am on 28 March 2018

Witnessing children forced into addiction, prostitution and dire poverty in Central America started New Zealander Kristina Cavit on a path that culminated in her founding The Kindness Institute.

Now she runs mindfulness-based meditation and yoga programmes at Wiri Women's prison in South Auckland and also works with children and marginalised youth.

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Photo: Amanda Billing

But it was that trip to South America that laid the foundation for a path Cavit never anticipated.

"I had a real moment where my eyes opened and I decided that this was the kind of mahi that I wanted to get involved with," she says.

She got in touch with a charity in the Dominican Republic where she volunteered to teach acting, but in 2010 a massive earthquake hit neighbouring Haiti.

Her intended one month of volunteer work turned into a two-year stint where she was involved in earthquake relief programmes, and health and education projects to help around 4,000 children across Latin America.

During the day Cavit was involved in project management, but after hours she worked in a children's home.

"There was a lot of madness going on in the homes and in the classrooms a lot of the times," she says.

Quickly identifying a need to introduce routine and structure, she began teaching yoga.

"As soon as we got [in touch with] our bodies and [practised] some yoga the endorphins started to hit."

Cavit says the sense of calm was palpable. The kids requested more sessions and soon the teachers were getting involved.

When she returned to New Zealand her curiosity about mindfulness led her to the US Holistic Life Foundation in Baltimore - a programme supported by two universities, Johns Hopkins and Harvard University.

"[They] were working in the hood with kids suffering from PTSD, because their environment is like a war zone [where] people are getting shot [and] locked up every day," she says.

Cavit says the programme was inspiring.

"The way they run their programme is really built on unconditional love. So they're teaching their kids that they can do no wrong in an environment where they can't mess up, and they don't have to be perfect."

The support is unconditional regardless of what is going on the lives of the kids and no matter how the kids are responding to stressful and traumatic events in their lives - the adults in the programme are there as a constant support, she says.

"Providing that sense of stability is huge [especially] providing love where sometimes there isn't a lot of love going on," says Cavit.

Practical tools like yoga and meditation are integrated into the programme. Another important aspect is 'training the trainer.'

First and foremost the kids learn how to manage their own stress, and Cavit says part of their homework is to teach the tools they're learning to other kids, family members and people in the community, creating a ripple effect.

Bringing what she'd learnt back to New Zealand, Cavit launched a pilot programme in 2016 working with a class of 26 students at Onehunga High School for an hour a week. The results were very positive.

The Kindness Institute has now worked with around 700 children in New Zealand and Cavit would like to see the programmes continue around the country.

She says mindfulness teaches kids to listen and be more present in communication, and express themselves more fully. This, she says, isn't taught as part of our culture.

"As we know with New Zealand's toxic, toughen up culture [and] this mental health crisis that we're facing, this kind of communication of our emotions is not modelled to us a lot of the time, so that's what we're trying to do at The Kindness Institute," Cavit says.