September 2009

Neighborhood Outreach Connection: Turning Hope into Reality

Author: Dennis Adams

Nowadays, people can hardly get a good night’s sleep. Just try to find a few moments of free time, let alone a way to shake off the stress of work and family life. But slow down on your next drive past the Oaks Apartments. You may feel the wave of relaxation drifting out toward the highway.

The Neighborhood Outreach Connection now offers a yoga program in its Oaks Program Center. Just a short walk away from their front doors, the residents can attend the weekly 90-minute sessions taught by a certified instructor.

After 90 minutes of yoga, students leave with a positive outlook and sense of wellbeing. What is more, they take what they have learned home, where they can practice every day of the week. “My yoga class is my only time to spend just for myself,” said one participant. “I can get away from the family for a while and just relax.”

Relaxation is the natural result of yoga practice. As the women in the Oaks have discovered, sleep alone does not necessarily provide the needed relief from stress. Beyond enriching the overall quality of life, yoga can ease the effect of hot flashes during menopause and address other specific ailments. One student asked advice for neck and back pain aggravated by the repetitive movement of folding sheets and towels in her job. Current instructor, Rebecca Cygan is a certified yoga therapist, well-qualified to respond to such questions.

Elizabeth Cooper, another of the yoga instructors, knows from personal experience that yoga is much more than physical exercise. The nationally-recognized YogaEd teaching program showed her how yoga can empower at-risk youth and adults. One of the “off the mat” benefits of regular yoga practice using the YogaEd curriculum is that it “expands emotional literacy,” she explained. “Inner space expands as students identify emotions without getting caught up in them. Each person is free to reflect upon incidents and feelings of daily life, rather than merely reacting to them.”

The yoga instructors provide a supportive, non-threatening environment at the Oaks. Although sessions are open to everyone, all current participants are Hispanic women. NOC is considering separate sessions for men, teenagers, and children in the future to reach more people.

According to Cooper, the uneasiness that newcomers express vanishes by the end of class when the participants have a second chance to share their feelings. She has seen an “amazing level of focus” among students, an outcome she attributes to a combination of their desire to learn yoga and the limited opportunities they have to do so. The worker-friendly session schedule (5:00-6:30 p.m.) affords a rare opportunity for personal time to refresh and rejuvenate.

Participants support the program with a $5 contribution per session or, in cases of financial need, NOC provides them with a scholarship and they pay $1. As NOC chair, Dr. Narendra Sharma has seen in his 30 years working at the World Bank, people value experiences more if they have a stake in what they’re doing. By paying for classes, students show themselves and NOC that they are invested in the experience. Each student will soon be able buy an inexpensive mat for personal use at home and in class.

Quality control and continuity is essential to every Neighborhood Outreach Program. Far from a random affair, the yoga class has its own structured syllabus, based on the YogaEd curriculum. Cooper taught the first couple of months and Cygan now continues the sessions without disruption to the schedule or the students.

Yoga is one of the many ways that the Neighborhood Outreach Connection has been bringing residents together in the distressed neighborhoods of Beaufort County. Other educational programs in the Oaks include aerobics, basic, intermediate and business English, beginner’s Spanish, a women’s support group, basic computer skills and PC lab, basic health care, children’s story times and the Little Saturday School.

NOC has partnered with Volunteers in Medicine, Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry, the Beaufort County Library and other agencies to provide these life-enhancing programs directly with the Oaks neighborhood. The community development organization is also working with the Oaks Neighborhood Association to build a new playground, renovate the recreation center and establish a Neighborhood Watch program.

For Dr. Sharma, this is only the beginning. “We see our successes in the Oaks as a flagship project for other neighborhoods whose residents aspire to a higher quality of life for themselves and their children. With the growing financial and volunteer support of our community, we are turning hope into reality.”

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