The Crim Fitness Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the health and wellness of families in Flint, Michigan, and the surrounding Genesee County.
Nearly 40 years ago, the Crim Fitness Foundation got its start organizing a 10-mile road race to raise money for the Special Olympics. In the decades since, it has expanded into a broad-based health promotion organization, which is firmly rooted in the communities it serves, and envisions a happier and healthier future for Flint.
This mission doesn’t come without obstacles. Flint has dealt with unemployment, poverty, and crime since the closing of the General Motors plants left the local economy depleted, and in the past two years, their struggle has become more widely known, as toxic levels of lead in the drinking water have put entire communities into crisis. Now, as Crim looks to support its community in a time of great need, forging a path forward that is at once practical and hopeful, they are leaning into their own foundations for a solution.
The Crim Approach to Health
When Gerry Myers came on board as the CEO of the Crim Fitness Foundation, the program leadership saw that there was tremendous potential to grow. Through their street races, “the Crim,” as it’s known in Flint, was already a known and beloved organization, and Gerry believed that they could expand their reach to affect a more lasting change on community culture. They started with physical activity and nutrition programming, primarily through running and walking clubs in schools, and adding on with nutrition education through federal SNAP-Ed funding. But there was a missing piece. Even with all the emphasis on eating healthy and exercise, health outcomes weren’t improving. In fact, they were getting worse.
As Gerry describes, people in Flint “need to have access to care, they need a medical home, they need to eat right, they need to exercise, they need safe housing. We know all of that. But we can’t continue to have the same conversation about doing the same kinds of things and expect different results.”
For the Crim, mindfulness was the missing piece of the puzzle. Why mindfulness? According to Jamie Florida, Crim’s Associate Program Director of Mindfulness, “mindfulness supports the health of individuals by addressing the pervasive stress experienced today, and also helps encourage better overall health through practicing self-care.” The Crim Foundation realized that unequivocally, people in their community, especially children, were experiencing high levels of chronic, toxic stress. In order to resolve any of the challenges facing Flint, they needed to first address this stress, and give kids and adults the tools to help build individual resilience and cope with the challenges they face every single day.
For kids and teens in particular, mindfulness presented a promising solution.
“Mindfulness can benefit children and teens in Flint schools by giving students the tools they need to combat the stress they experience,” says Jamie.
“It offers students the opportunity to know they have a choice by teaching them to make thoughtful choices instead of quick reactions.”
After hearing about Mindful Schools programming thriving in Oakland, California, Crim sent Tom Hauer, their Program Manager, to be trained in the Mindful Schools curriculum. Then, building off their existing relationships with teachers and principals, they were able to start introducing mindfulness into their own community through the classrooms, implementing mindful brain breaks to the benefit of students and teachers alike. After all, research shows that mindfulness can improve a variety of pressing factors in a classroom, from academic performance and focus to relationships and behavior.
Now if you talk to anyone at the Crim, they’re likely to tell you that mindfulness is the “third leg of a stool,” an essential piece of their mission that complements nutrition and physical activity to support overall community health.
With time, the mindfulness programs gained momentum, and as the Crim deepened their commitment to leading community engagement and community education initiatives in their three program areas, they sought out ways to expand upon their mindfulness programs in innovative ways. “We started asking ourselves, ‘Do we create our own mindfulness approach and our own curriculum?’” Gerry recalls. “It was a challenging question. We wanted the highest level of integrity, without compromising our personal commitment to our community. And we wondered how we could tie it all into physical activity.”
In the past few years, the Crim Fitness Foundation secured new funding, and were able to prioritize program implementation in collaboration with the superintendent of Flint Community Schools. As they looked at key resources around the country, the team at Crim identified three nationally recognized organizations—Inner Explorer, MindUP, and Yoga Ed.—who have all of “been out there doing the work alone,” empowering communities with practical mindfulness tools to support health, wellbeing, and success. “I really believe that we are better together,” says Gerry. “Crim has the positioning in the community, and the staffing capacity, to implement and manage the programming. We just needed to have the trust and buy-in to the other methods, so that there’s collective value and agreement.”
From Crisis, Innovation and Hope
At about the same time that the team at Crim was looking at this expansion, the Flint Lead Crisis rose to public attention. After the city switched their water source to the Flint River in April of 2014, residents began complaining of a foul odor and color in their drinking water. By September 2015, researchers discovered hazardous lead contamination in this water supply, that was elevated blood lead levels in children across the city. Because lead can significantly impair brain development in infants and children, and the long-term ramifications are widely unknown, Flint now faces an uphill battle to help reduce the effects of the lead exposure in its youth.
For the leadership team and Board at Crim, this crisis also presented an opportunity. “Researchers have been very upfront in identifying mindfulness as having some impact on mitigating the impact of lead,” Gerry notes. They now had a “perfect storm of opportunity and resources” to start making a considerable difference in supporting precisely the same cognitive and behavioral factors that would be affected by lead poisoning.
Now, in addition to addressing stress, academic focus, and behavior regulation, Tom Hauer says that they “anticipate mindfulness will help mitigate the effects of lead exposure,” and they have geared up the resources and support to do so. Between the Crim Fitness Foundation, Yoga Ed., MindUP, and Inner Explorer, and through the generous support of Yoga Ed.’s Founder Tara Guber, there is now a clear and innovative path toward healing and recovery. According to Gerry, Crim is looking to “take the best of what’s out there and make it work for Flint.” With shared work, a shared vision, and shared financial commitment, he has been “blown away by the support” of each organization, and their willingness to work together toward one common goal. And with the Crim at the helm, people in Flint, from the school board to the teachers and parents, know that their needs and their community will always be at the heart of the programs. This “amazing commitment of people” from across the country reflects the magnitude of the problem in Flint, as well as the unique opportunity to create a lasting and meaningful impact. Even further, the Crim hopes to document that impact, bringing on board Dr. B Grace Bullock, Ph.D., a psychologist and researcher with expertise in yoga and mindfulness. Dr. Bullock will assist in monitoring and evaluating the program components, their efficacy and their impact, so that the Flint community can better understand the benefits mindfulness can bring.
Strong Bodies, Strong Minds
As one of the Crim’s key partners, Yoga Ed. aims to bring mindfulness to teachers, students, parents, and the larger Flint community through movement, with yoga in classrooms and after school. “Yoga Ed. is a wonderful mindful activity catered to Flint youth that face daily challenges that most of us have never experienced,” Tom notes. “It will help them develop lifelong resilience skills.”
Pairing physical activity with mindfulness practice allows Crim to address two of it’s major program components at once, and with Yoga Ed.’s strong research and evidence-base, it has allowed them to maintain the high levels of integrity that the Flint community has come to expect from Crim.
According to Jamie, “Yoga Ed. plays a significant role in supporting our vision by offering mindful physical activity programming. We have found that most of our students enjoy yoga, and we look forward to introducing Yoga Ed. to our programming and watching it flourish.”
Be the Change
As the Crim mindfulness programming unfolds, Gerry is expecting for “things to evolve and change quickly” in order for them to be able to provide students, teachers, and the community with the best tools. When there is a problem, “everyone wants the prescription, but so much of the solution is discretionary. We have to meet people where they are, and give them tools to help them move along. We are working in small steps — not too little or too much.”
That’s why mindfulness has such promise. The Crim team knows that they can’t fix everything, but they do see the opportunity to empower people in how they respond to their circumstances, one moment at a time.
“Really, we’re instilling the notion to ‘be the change you wish to see in the world,’ by building on the individual capacity to make a difference,” says Gerry. “People feel victimized to what’s around them. But do they allow that dysfunction to paralyze and victimize them and eliminate hope? We provide tools to change perspective, minimize stress, and give them the opportunity to respond differently. We give people an opportunity to quiet the noise.”
Jamie sees this going even further. “Mindfulness supports communities by encouraging interconnectedness, which is essential in helping to grow a compassionate world,” she says. “Through our Community Education Initiative, we will be able to not only support our students with mindfulness, but we will be able to expand mindfulness to the rest of the Flint community with schools acting as community resource hubs. We hope Flint can become known as a Mindful City. After all, mindfulness encourages a healthier community with strong minds through the practice of mindfulness and strong bodies from yoga.”
We believe that the future of Flint is bright, and if this partnership can illuminate the impact of a mindful movement—with all the economic and social struggles that Flint has faced — then we can only image what the future holds.
Photos courtesy of Crim Fitness Foundation.