Benji Project teacher Heather McRae-Woolf talks with her daughter Orlanda on the Swan School patio, the setting for a new mindfulness circle for teens in Port Townsend. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/Peninsula Daily News)

Benji Project teacher Heather McRae-Woolf talks with her daughter Orlanda on the Swan School patio, the setting for a new mindfulness circle for teens in Port Townsend. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/Peninsula Daily News)

The Benji Project opens mindfulness circle

Free program aims to support youth and mental health

PORT TOWNSEND — You’re climbing the stairs when, oh my gosh, all of a sudden, they turn into an escalator, rolling faster under your feet.

That’s how a teenage girl, in a short video on The Benji Project’s website, describes how stress feels.

The teen participated in a mindfulness class, learning meditation and other techniques that put her feet back on solid ground.

The Benji Project, founded after 15-year-old Benji Kenworthy of Port Townsend ended his life six years ago, offers workshops, camps, in-school programs and parenting workshops centered on resilience.

Its next program, a mindfulness circle for girls and non-binary youngsters, starts Saturday at Swan School, with safety protocols practiced during the afternoon meetings. Sixth- through 12th-graders are invited to join the small groups, which are free thanks to Benji Project donors.

Middle- and high school cohorts will meet every other Saturday until April 24.

Sign-up information is available via TheBenjiProject.org.

“In the future, we want to do a mindfulness circle for boys and young men,” added Heather McRae-Woolf, one of The Benji Project’s teachers.

She has words of encouragement for adults as well because, not only is teen mental health suffering across the nation, but parents like herself are also struggling, she said.

Her message: Self-compassion is for everybody.

“We have an inner critic,” McRae-Woolf said, “but can you replace it, bit by bit, with an inner compassionate voice?

“We’re in this very strange reality right now. How do we practice compassion for ourselves and others? It takes practice; conscious effort.

“The fruits can be really beautiful,” as we find everyday things to enjoy, she said.

Mindfulness is a buzzword, yet it can provide relief from social media, school-related stress and the challenges of adolescence.

One way to practice it is to ground through the senses: Tune in to touch, smell, taste and hearing, “all the better if you can connect with them outdoors,” McRae-Woolf said.

“We’re spending all this time in two-dimensional space,” on our computers and phones, so it’s easy to forget about the body you’re living in.

Connecting with sensation through music, yoga and nature can help, she said.

“Try to engage with the natural world, even on these cold days,” she continued, by simply standing on the earth.

Conversation is another balm, McRae-Woolf added, parent to parent and teenager to teenager.

TheBenjiProject.org has information and videos exploring mindfulness, including one in which another girl praises the practice of writing oneself a compassionate letter.

In a Benji Project workshop, she wrote this letter about things she likes about herself; staffers mailed it to her a month later so she got to read and ponder it again.

McRae-Woolf and project development and operations coordinator April Thompson look forward to offering more programs in the spring while expanding from Port Townsend to the rest of Jefferson County.

Teen suicide continues to be a serious problem on the North Olympic Peninsula, with one adolescent death from suicide last fall and a handful of attempts in the months since, Thompson said.

The pandemic has amplified the sense of isolation rural youngsters may feel at the very time when they want to connect with their peers.

Amid it all, The Benji Project strives to meet young people where they are.

“We’re a grassroots, local-level nonprofit,” Thompson said.

“I want to see us grow and provide services.”

________

Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]

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