Teachers participating in a workshop offered by The Center for Peace through Culture. (Photo taken pre-pandemic.) Augusta Rose Photography

Berkshire nonprofit brings free peace, wellness programs to teachers, the community

Under stress, you don’t realize you can make a different choice, so you keep doing the same thing…you don’t even know there’s another way to be.

Housatonic — Susan Lord is on a mission. Her goal: to champion peace and wellness. She believes that if you want to live in a peaceful world, you have to be peaceful yourself. As executive director of the Center for Peace Through Culture, she offers free programs throughout Berkshire County for educators, teachers, schools and community organizations that strive to promote resiliency, responsibility and compassion. For teachers, the nonprofit offers relaxation and focusing techniques for personal use that can also be applied in the classroom.

“If you give children a simple tool like breathing mindfully, it boosts the ability to focus, which makes it easier to learn,” Lord explained. And she pointed out that kids are actually asking for these skills because they help them to feel more grounded.

“You learn through example,” Lord observed. “If the teacher in the classroom is calm and centered, the student models that behavior.”

Executive director Susan Lord talks with a participant at a teacher workshop offered by the Center for Peace Through Culture. (Photo taken pre-pandemic). Photo: Augusta Rose Photography

The Center for Peace Through Culture was initially founded in New York City more than 40 years ago to foster peace through collaborative projects; chapter affiliates were established in California, Texas, Canada and Massachusetts. Lord has been at the helm of the Berkshire group since 2014. The Stockbridge resident earned her bachelor’s degree from Smith College and a medical degree from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. She has over 25 years of experience in the healing arts, which include teaching positions at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and serving as senior staff at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C.

With the onset of the pandemic, Lord has seen an increase in demand for services. “The world is different now,” Lord stressed. “COVID has humbled us; it’s changed every aspect of our lives and people are looking for creative ways to navigate the situation.”

Under stress, you don’t realize you can make a different choice, so you keep doing the same thing — you don’t even know there’s another way to be, said Lord. “Trauma changes the brain; the danger and fear center fires all the time, which is telling you nothing is safe.” The nonprofit provides options for moving forward with more self-awareness and attunement.

Especially now during turbulent times, the programs are crucial, admitted Angie Moon, a kindergarten and first-grade special education teacher at Crosby Elementary School in Pittsfield, who said she’s better able to handle change as a result of her participation in the center’s workshops. Moon said the experience has boosted her confidence and helped her learn self-care skills. “I’m now able to be my best self in the classroom by maintaining a calm steady presence, and that’s good for my students to see.”

Kids Mindful Taekwondo warm-up with Grandmaster Thomas Brown of Martial Arts Institute of the Berkshires hosted by the Center for Peace Through Culture. (Photo taken pre-pandemic.) Photo: Van Forsman

She continued: “I used to think I had to put everyone else first and myself last, and now I take care of myself as a human being; I don’t feel depleted all the time. And I can quiet negative self-talk.”

If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else, said Bridget McKeever, a special education teacher who teaches third through fifth grade at Stearns Elementary School in Pittsfield, and has been teaching in the Pittsfield Public Schools system for 23 years. McKeever has instilled the center’s mindfulness practices in her classroom and she said it’s helped kids de-escalate situations and regulate their emotions.

“These skills are a prevention method,” McKeever emphasized. “If you can manage your feelings in a natural way, then you don’t turn to drugs and alcohol, because you know how to be with yourself and your emotions.” She’s seen her students comfort each other during tense instances by breathing deeply and simply saying to one another: “It’ll be OK, you’ll get through this — we’ll help you.”

In a chaotic world with so many distractions and so much to worry about, these are healthy ways to connect with yourself and others, said McKeever.

Western culture is so wrapped up in the external material world, we’ve forgotten about inner qualities such as curiosity, joy, wisdom and kindness, noted Lord. The nonprofit also aims to bring these attributes back into the conversation.

“The pace of life is faster now; people are expected to work more and more. When we go so fast, we miss the exquisite preciousness of the moment,” Lord said. Slowing down and noticing your thoughts and feelings is essential to knowing yourself. “Most people don’t know what they really feel at any given time.”

“We focus on heart-centered living,” affirmed Lord. “Your heart will always tell you the truth and give you guidance.”

Lord said she wants people to live their deepest, richest lives. “If you bring beauty and creativity to the world, you’re less likely to destroy it.”

For more information, contact: info@centerforpeacethroughculture.org or call (413) 274-7002.