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Meet Susan Lovett of Hands to Heart Center

Today we’d like to introduce you to Susan Lovett.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I’ve been a social worker in Boston’s low-income communities working with youth and families with trauma for over 20 years. Due to the stress of my job, I was experiencing chronic soreness and stiffness in my neck and shoulders so I tried yoga and found immediate benefits. As I felt better physically, I also noticed that I felt calmer and more patient with my clients and colleagues. I began practicing yoga regularly and, after a few years, participated in a yoga teacher training. My intention was not to become a yoga teacher but to deepen my own practice.

During the course of my training, I was required to offer several community classes so I provided them to students and staff at a high-poverty Boston Public School. where I worked. After leading just one yoga class, I received many requests from classroom teachers to lead customized classes for their students. I did my best to meet all of the requests and not long after that, I started receiving requests for yoga classes from a staff of other high-poverty schools and nonprofit organizations in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury. Since I’d worked in those communities for many years, people knew and trusted me and were excited to hear that I was now teaching free, trauma-sensitive yoga classes.

At this point, I was feeling overwhelmed by all of the requests and was also less than confident in my new yoga teaching skills. When I received a request from the Roxbury Y to provide yoga classes for their Teen Nights, every Friday, 7 pm to midnight in July and August in 2014, I reached out to four yoga teachers I knew and asked if they would be interested in teaching any of the classes. To my surprise, each yoga teacher enthusiastically said yes! I have since learned that many teachers have a desire to share their practice with people who don’t have access to yoga but the teachers don’t necessarily have the connections and/or resources to do so.

Since Hands to Heart Center’s founding in April of 2014, we have onboarded over 225 Community Yoga Teacher volunteers who lead classes for the clients, residents, students, and staff at our 65 Community Partners in Greater Boston. We have now provided more than 1.500 free, customized yoga classes in branch libraries, community centers, detention units, domestic violence shelters, high-poverty shelters, homeless shelters, public housing developments and residential treatment programs. Hands to Heart Center shares the healing practice of yoga with people affected by addiction, poverty, and trauma in Greater Boston.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?Hands to Heart Center yoga classes were in-demand right away and the requests have continued to increase. Fortunately, the number of yoga teachers applying to become Hands to Heart Center Community Yoga Teachers has also increased – significantly!. This is especially exciting because, aside from my initial invitation to four local yoga teachers, we haven’t done any recruiting. Some teachers are finding out about Hands to Heart Center through word of mouth and others are researching online with the search words “yoga” and “volunteer”. The teachers tell us that they’re thrilled to have found Hands to Heart Center and many reports ” this is exactly what I was looking for!”

I think that we’ve made relatively smooth progress because this organization was created to meet existing needs. I was literally asked by community members and staff of high-poverty schools and nonprofit organizations to make yoga affordable and accessible. In the process, Hands to Heart Center has mobilized yoga teachers as volunteers and increased awareness of yoga for all. We actively promote yoga and mindfulness as effective healing practices that can be done by anyone, in any condition, in any location. Our social media posts feature articles and images of people of color, people with many different body sizes and people of all ages doing yoga.

Our major area of a challenge has been fundraising. I volunteer between 15-20 hours per week in my role as Director and we only have a part-time Program Director. Our goal is to raise enough money to increase the hours to a full-time Program Director position.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Hands to Heart Center – what should we know?
Hands to Heart Center is a nonprofit organization that shares the healing practice of yoga with people affected by addiction, poverty and trauma in Greater Boston. We specialize in customized trauma-sensitive yoga and mindfulness classes, programs and workshops for people who would not otherwise have access to yoga.

A growing body of scientific evidence show that yoga is effective in alleviating anxiety, depression, stress and trauma as well as an increasing number of physical ailments. We are passionate about making this effective resource available to people without privilege – the privilege to afford yoga classes, the privilege to feel like they belong in a a yoga studio, the privilege to travel to a neighborhood with a yoga studio, the privilege to physically walk up the stairs to enter a yoga studio.

We are proud of the number of volunteers we have trained and supported – currently 225 yoga teachers.
We are proud of the number of Community Partners for whom we provide classes – currently 65.
We are proud of the number of free, customized yoga classes we’ve led in Greater Boston – currently, 1575.

We are incredibly proud that Hands to Heart Center provides accessible, inclusive and inspiring yoga classes for: low-income public school students in wheelchairs, local veterans affected by PTSD, women and children in domestic violence shelters, low-income families affected by trauma ,men, women and teens in recovery programs, survivors of sexual assault, people with complex medical condiitons, young men in detention centers, girls in foster care, individuals experiencing homelessness, EVERYONE!

What sets Hands to Heart Center apart is that we are a volunteer organization and all of our high-quality, customized yoga classes are powered by compassion and generosity. We say that Hands to Heart Center is the intersection of yoga and social justice. We also say that we deliver yoga powered by love.

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
Our Community Yoga Teachers deserve the most credit because none of this would be possible without them.
We are also grateful to our Community Partners (including Brookview House, Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, Boston Public Library, Boston Public Health Commission, Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Project, Gavin Foundation, Mayor’s Office of Recovery Services and the VA Hospital).

HTHC’s Program Director is Nessie Fernandez Demchko and she manages all of the Community Yoga Teachers and Community Partners along with the many day-to-day tasks that keep us going.

We’ve received funding from the Boston Foundation and the Kripalu Teach for Diversity program as well as from our friends and family members. We’ve received technical assistance and inspiration from the Yoga Service Council.

We also appreciate and celebrate our super-volunteers, the Community Yoga Teachers who not only lead free classes but also deliver yoga mats and class kits, support our fundraising efforts and assist us with administrative tasks, grant writing, research and data collection. Some of our super-volunteers are Kumiko Strauss, John McDonough, Anne DeSimone, Kristina Marcus, Nicole Kelley, Danielle Bailey, Sara Kochanowski, Leo Bray and Karen Caizzo.

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