By Janice Llanes Fabry
When Leith Colton joined the Carver Center four-and-a-half years ago, she soon found herself with the opportunity to provide mental health services at the longest- running community-based organization in Port Chester. She came with the knowledge that teaching wellness, helping to promote assertive communication, and engaging in healthy relationships within organizations was long-term work that she was willing to take on.
“Joe Kwasniewski [Carver CEO] and I envisioned a mental wellness program that would focus on people’s strengths, while acknowledging their challenges and supporting them with a skill set that they might not have,” she said. “We all struggle at various points in our lives and I’m really grateful for the people who have taught me skills that have helped me feel more at peace with myself or my circumstances.”
As Carver’s Community Wellness Director, Colton has supported a culture and programming that includes mindfulness. She believes that practices supporting self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and healthy decision making have tremendous implications for organizational health and community resilience.
“Our mindfulness program is designed to provide students with techniques, habits, and mental training that can set them up for healthier lifelong skills in the social emotional arena,” explained Colton. In addition, mindfulness can help teachers better manage the daily demands they face in an effort to best serve students and families.
More than just the buzzword du jour, mindfulness is a nourishing combination of awareness, self-regulation, and “presentness” that can lead to greater empathy, compassion, and balance, despite life’s distractions and demands. Mindfulness in education provides youth with tools that enhance their ability to learn.
Prior to her non-profit experiences, Colton worked in the corporate world but felt a deep tug to do something that held more meaning. “I came to the helping professions at a point in my life where I had lost my way and I needed something that would fill me with a sense of purpose,” said Colton, who became an EMT for the Armonk Fire Department.
“The experiences I’ve had as an EMT have been pivotal, life-changing,” she noted. “I’ve come to realize that what one knows to be true can change in a minute. I’ve spent the past number of years trying to make every minute count.”
It was at a mental health conference that Colton made an acquaintance who introduced her to Kwasniewski at a time when Carver Center was well positioned for positive change. About the unwavering support she has received from Kwasniewski, as well as Port Chester-Rye Union Free School District Assistant Superintendent Joseph Durney, Colton remarked, “These two visionary leaders have been amazing thinking partners and I could not be where I am without their support and guidance,” she noted. “My life purpose has become the work that I do. Whether in my role as an EMT or in teaching mindfulness skills to others, I need to contribute to a more positive world.”
Colton first introduced mindfulness skills and basic knowledge about brain/body function to Carver’s summer campers in 2015. She taught 14 groups a week during the six-week program.
“I was determined to reach as many children and counselors as I could and introduce them to these transformative skills,” she explained. “Over and over, kids expressed how they used these tools, especially mindful breathing, to deal with their life challenges.”
In the last year and a half, Colton has brought mindfulness programming to daytime classes and to the afterschool programs at Thomas A. Edison and John F. Kennedy Elementary Schools, as well as Port Chester Middle School. Today, she supports the 85 teachers, administrators, and Carver personnel who have participated in training through an agreement with Mindful Schools.
She hopes to continue to expand the work she has begun in order to include more children, families, and teachers. “Mindfulness can open our hearts in ways that give us the opportunity to lovingly connect,” said Colton, who has a daily mindful meditation practice. “The practices have made me more compassionate and have provided me with more mental clarity and equanimity. There is no end to the implications, so we will continue to infuse mindfulness into much of what we’re doing here at Carver.”
Leith Colton, Community Wellness Director at The Carver Center