This article is being co-published with The Imprint, a national nonprofit news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice.
Inside a renovated locker room-turned yoga studio, Harlem elementary school children view pastel-colored walls with butterflies and a ceiling full of twinkling stars. The smell of peppermint infuses the room, and they can hear a softly splashing waterfall. A poster of former President Barack Obama reads, “Our destiny is not written for us, but by us,” and another reminds the school kids: “I am beautiful.”
Guiding the fourth graders through a weekly, 50-minute yoga and meditation class is Demetrius Napolitano, who draws on his experience gleaned from a childhood in foster care.
“How is your mind, body and heart feeling?” Napolitano asked the students who live in this majority Latino and Black Manhattan community, one of New York City’s most under-resourced.
Some shrugged off the question posed to them this early December day. One said “calm,” another: “I’m tired.”
“My heart is happy that I’m here,” one student replied.
For the past three years, Napolitano, 28, has taught mindfulness and meditation in schools across New York City, including PSMS 108 School of Authors in east Harlem, where he once attended. Students in the first through eighth grade who take his course, Fostering Meditation, refer to Napolitano as “Mr. Meditation.”
A 12-year-old seventh grader who Napolitano has taught over the past three years often pops into class to speak to one of his favorite teachers.
“When you come in here you get to express yourself,” he said. “It’s not a judging place.”
Mindfulness heals traumatic pasts
Practitioners in the child welfare field have long acknowledged the importance of healing arts for children in foster care and those who’ve experienced complex trauma.
In a study published in 2017, physicians at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that “high-quality, structured mindfulness instruction” improves mental, behavioral and physical outcomes in children. Intervention can also mitigate the negative effects of stress and trauma related to adverse childhood experiences in the short-term, and potentially through adulthood.
An Imprint reporter visited the east Harlem school on Dec. 7 as part of the outlet’s exploration of ways in which children who have grown up with traumatic pasts can and do receive opportunities to heal. Some of the students have been placed in foster care due to allegations of parental abuse or neglect, school officials say.
Poverty is a key driver of foster care. And in these children’s neighborhoods, the 34% poverty rate is more than double the city-wide rate, with a third of residents living on $20,000 or less per year, according to NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.
There is a lot weighing on the minds of the children at the School of Authors, as they trickled into the 11 a.m. class, taking off their coats and their shoes and rushing to their spots on lavender yoga mats. Napolitano instructed them to keep breathing deeply, lay flat on their backs and touch their belly buttons, in a Savasana pose. Inhale. And exhale.
Shortly after, he had the students rise to a seated position with a “dignified spine.” The class didn’t know exactly what that meant, but he showed them. It meant sitting up straight with proper posture, legs crossed, palms facing upward and eyes closed. In other yoga poses, the children stretched their arms to the ceiling and balanced on the balls of their feet.
The fourth-grade teacher, Taryn Wahlis, also participated. Napolitano was once her student too, and she watched with pride as he confidently led the class, noting afterward: “Just amazing to see his fruition and his journey. Such a journey.”
‘I began to wake up’
Indeed, Napolitano’s personal experience in foster care led him to create the Fostering Meditation class.
He entered the system at age 2, and was moved in and out of foster homes until he was 5 years old. He was subsequently adopted into a home where he said he endured years of mental, physical and sexual abuse. To numb his pain, he was placed on four different psychotropic medications, which he described as making him even more angry, and prompting him to run away from home.
When Napolitano was 13, he said he came back to the foster care system, and over a seven-year period, moved through 25 different foster homes and a Brooklyn juvenile detention facility. With the lack of freedom, he found himself even more lonely and depressed, and wanting to give up on himself and the people around him.
“I began to wake up and realize that all these friends and family members that you can allegedly call on, you can’t call on any of them,” he said.
But a particularly dedicated social worker, Toni Ince, saw his potential and convinced him otherwise.
“Demetrius, you’ll leave me before I ever leave you,” he recalled Ince telling him. And that confidence changed his life. With her help, he was placed in a final foster home which stuck: He was adopted by the Napolitanos, and given their name.
After finding some semblance of stability, he went on to earn an associate degree in business management from St. John’s University in Queens and later a bachelor’s degree in political science from New York University.
Yet as he transitioned into adulthood, he became more aware of how his past trauma continued to affect him.
His adoptive father, John Napolitano, first introduced him to mindfulness. While helping him move into a new apartment, the senior Napolitano wanted to take a break from work. He then pulled out two circular bells attached with a string and dinged them three times.
“He told me to focus on my breathing, to slowly breathe in with full control and slowly exhale,” Napolitano recalled.
By the third breath, he felt centered. And from that point on, he was hooked on the simple but transformative power of focused breathing.
That impression led Napolitano to start a GoFundMe account in 2019 that raised $17,000 for him to practice meditation across India for nine months. While there, he earned a 200-hour certificate in Hatha yoga, and participated in a 10-day Vinyasa session, meditating from 4:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
He launched the Fostering Meditation classes after returning from India in 2020.
‘I am strong’
Children sit in a circle for the class, receiving oral or written prompts they can take home.
Napolitano aims to help children who have grown up impacted by poverty and foster care become “participants in their healing journey.” The active practice of yoga and meditation extends beyond the class: “We’re giving the young people the tools so that they can be the masters of their own fate.”
Napolitano said he’s motivated by the positive feedback he receives from his students, which also aids in his own healing from childhood trauma. At times, the effects of mindfulness practice are small, but impactful.
“Even if it’s not to have extremes of bliss and peace, then maybe they can just experience stillness,” he said, adding that for many of his students, that sensation is a rarity in their daily lives.
At one point during the December class, the typically rambunctious group fell almost completely silent, save for the exhale of deep breaths.
But at the end of the class, students yelled out affirmations: “I am strong,” and “I am smart.” One fourth grader cried out that she had seen herself with God. Another stated simply: “I am enough.”
Madison Hunt is a New York-based reporter for The Imprint covering child welfare and the youth justice system.