Founded in 1999, Kids Kicking Cancer teaches self-control and deep breathing techniques found in the martial arts to help ameliorate ailing children’s pain.
A merciful endeavor begun two decades ago by a Southfield rabbi to bring relief to young cancer patients has enlarged to offer encouragement and support to physically healthy, but underprivileged schoolkids in Oak Park.
It’s been five years since 10-year-old cancer survivor Leah Vincenzetti became involved with Kids Kicking Cancer, the organization founded by Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg in 1999 that teaches self-control and deep breathing techniques found in the martial arts to help ameliorate ailing children’s pain.
Leah’s journey typifies the nearly 12,000 youngsters who have become both warriors in (and ambassadors of) the organization over the course of its existence. Empowered with an inner strength learned through KKC’s programs, along with Goldberg’s mantra of “Power, Peace, Purpose,” the fourth-grader speaks easily about how KKC has given her the tools to assuage the fear and pain that cancer creates.
“I’ve been able to teach people power breathing so it can help them whenever they need to calm down,” Leah explains during a Zoom conversation we had after school one day. “Or if you go to the hospital and you get nervous, it’s easier when you just breathe through it.”
Breathing through it for Leah calls upon another tool in the KKC program: the refrain of “Breathing in the light and blowing out the darkness.” The simplicity of the message and related programming built around its ethos has resonance. The organization has grown from a local Detroit outfit to a worldwide nonprofit, with chapters in nine states and six countries across three continents.
The palliative care protocol that KKC offers its clients — including those with non-cancer diseases through its Heroes Circle division — are rooted in the concept of somatic breathing: a sophisticated form of conscious breathing that teaches how to deliver more oxygen to the brain and body.
The science behind deep breathing is awash with studies demonstrating empirical efficacy in reducing anxiety, pain and the effects of trauma. Western medicine has been playing catch-up to what many practitioners of the martial arts, like Goldberg, have known for thousands of years: The mind can play tricks, and each person has the ability to control their mind.
And because conscious breathing is both an effective and low-cost way people of all ages can reduce the body’s level of cortisol — the hormone released to curb functions that would be nonessential in a fight-or-flight situation — breathing techniques abound.
Goldberg packaged his teaching in a way that uniquely appeals to children: through the guise of learning martial arts.
Heroes Circle in Oak Park
KKC and its Heroes Circle’s successful track record helping pediatric patients led to a series of meetings that began in August 2017 between its founder and the then-superintendent of Oak Park Schools, Dr. Daveda Colbert. The discussions included exploring ways programming like KKC’s could be adapted to help students struggling with the myriad psycho-social problems that often plague low-income students of color.
“We realized we had a tool that could accomplish great things for a great many people, children in particular” Goldberg explains. “It could lower the stress and suffering of children facing trauma that may not be medical in nature, but more cultural and socio-economic challenges; those challenges disproportionately fall on children of color.
“And the more we were learning about childhood trauma, in general, and how adverse childhood experiences negatively impact the immunological system, we’re seeing that those children are then becoming our patients because stress severely impacts the immune system — so many parts of the human body — in a negative way.”
Colbert and Goldberg approached the D. Dan and Betty Kahn Foundation to vet the idea of creating a curriculum adhering to the state of Michigan’s educational guidelines while also teaching students how to self-regulate, increase their attentiveness and decrease their anxiety.
Like its progenitor, the curriculum would be a Trojan Horse of learning: Martial arts therapists would come to the school for in-person lessons, augmenting the curriculum teachers would be provided.
Larry Wolfe, president of the Kahn Foundation, was convinced and gave the green light to fund a pilot program that would track the children’s progress with the help of scientists at Wayne State University School of Medicine. The program launched during the 2018-19 school year at Pepper Elementary School, and included both its second-, third- and fourth-grade classes. In order to prove its effectiveness, Pepper was randomly selected and another primary school in the district, Einstein Elementary School, served as a control group.
Goldberg and KKC assembled an A-list roster of professionals across multiple disciplines to help establish and create the Childhood Resilience Initiative within the organization’s Heroes Circle division. The CRI has some powerful names behind it, including its co-chair, the Hon. Bridget Mary McCormack, the chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.
“The simplicity and scalability of the program was what made me want to do anything I could to support it,” McCormack said in an email. “We see so many people struggling with trauma in our courts, and rarely do I come across resources that can have such tremendous reach.”
Reaching More Kids
“In our first pilot year, we were in six classrooms, but now we are in the process of expanding the curriculum to accommodate the grades above and below,” said Jamila Carrington Smith, KKC’s chief innovation officer and a co-author of the CRI curriculum. “We now have fifth-graders in this program and, so, we need to be ready to catch them when they move into middle school. It’s a particularly vulnerable space, emotionally, for kids.”
Year 2 of the grant funding brought a new school superintendent to Oak Park with the hiring of Dr. Jamii Hitchcock, previously a member of the Birmingham Public Schools leadership team. At their first meeting, Goldberg recalled, Hitchcock upped the ante for the program by asked him, “Why the program isn’t in every one of my schools?” It has since expanded to all of Oak Park’s elementary students in grades 3-5.
“Because this program was successful at Pepper, and because one of the KKC staff members is a retired Oak Park teacher, it lent some credibility to the program,” Hitchcock said, referring to curriculum co-author, and KKC team member, Kelly Blankenship, a 30-year veteran teacher at Pepper school. “People saw merit to what was happening at Pepper and understood that it was successful … and could be successful at Einstein and Key.”
Cindy Young, a third-grade teacher at Pepper, said the initial reaction to CRI by some of her colleagues was skeptical, but Blankenship lent significant credibility to the lesson plans.
“So, you’re always going to get people who are like, ‘I don’t want another thing to teach,’ or people who don’t like change,” Young explained. “But the fact that Kelly Blankenship was behind creating the curriculum, it went a long way in convincing people how great the program is.”
Blankenship retired from teaching at Pepper after the conclusion of CRI’s pilot year and was so impressed with the improvement in student performance she witnessed, she approached KKC to offer her services.
“I was retiring, and we went out to lunch with the folks from Kids Kicking Cancer, and I reached out to let Jamila know that if I could help out, I was available,” Blankenship said. “The following fall, I started writing the lesson plans, which were written for teachers by a teacher, who get time constraint, but also the need to be embedded in a cumulative curriculum.”
Blankenship was critical in creating both a workbook and accompanying teacher’s manual, and ensuring lessons hued to state of Michigan educational guidelines. The 26-week, daily 15-minute lessons on teaching children self-awareness of their emotions, stress triggers and how to positively deal with them, was put through a significant stress-test as districts nationwide were shuttering in March 2020.
“With regard to COVID-19, if you’re looking for a silver lining, one of the things that made the transition a little smoother was having to flip a switch and learn how to educate kids in a different way overnight, especially kids with so many of the challenges our kids experience regularly,” Hitchcock said.
Once COVID shut in-person learning down, the CRI team went to work on truncating the lessons from five to three 15-minute weekly sessions, and the martial art instructors held remote office hours, versus weekly in-person sessions, to maintain contact with students. Blankenship brought her former colleague, Cindy Young, onto the team in order to streamline the lesson plans for remote learning.
“One of the roles I had in Birmingham was the director of character education, and the Heroes Circle really reminded me of that,” Hitchcock said. When students help others with the techniques they have learned, she said, “in many cases, the students that were doing the helping actually ended up helping themselves.”
Goldberg’s mantra, extrapolated, seeks to impart the notion that each time a student performs what’s called a “Breath Brake,” where they employ their breathing techniques to re-center, they are also helping a child, somewhere, gain the same empowerment. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle of good that is meant to teach, inform and empower.
KKC’s Chairman of the Board Robert Bronstein, whose $1 million gift launched the nonprofit’s new, multi-year fundraising effort, is bullish on the Heroes Circle’s new CRI program as a natural outgrowth of the organization’s central tenet of helping children gain control in a world often not in their control. “It really feels like everything is firing on all cylinders, and there’s definitely really good momentum,” Bronstein said.
At the conclusion of our Zoom interview, Leah, the fourth-grader whose bravery facing her illness was on full display during our chat, summed up the culture Goldberg espouses when speaking about bringing more light into the world.
“It makes me feel like I have joy because I’m teaching others,” she said, “so they can learn it, and they can do it, and they can teach other people, so they can take control of themselves, too.”
Further Reading: What is a ‘Breath Brake?’
Keith Vartanian, a martial arts therapist with Kids Kicking Cancer’s Boston and New York chapters, takes us step-by-step on how to perform a Breath Brake, a core component of the Childhood Resilience Initiative curriculum.
Vartanian hosts a weekly Facebook Live broadcast at 5 p.m. (EDT) every Wednesday on KKC’s Facebook page.
He performs what is known as a “body scan,” releasing tension, discomfort and pain; letting the power of your breath “bring healing and comfort,” as he described. Vartanian performs Breath Brakes, virtually, with participants, helping them “breathe in the light and blow out the darkness.”
1. In our Breath Brake, we set our feet shoulder width apart. We start off by rubbing our hands together, feeling the warm energy we can create — our “chi.”
2. We then relax our shoulders, laying our hands at our waist, palms up. We begin to think about our “light,” all the things that make us feel happy, strong, safe and loved.
3. We “breathe in the light” for three seconds as we raise our hands up — through our belly, chest, and neck — and the breath follows and fills those spaces. At the top, we take one last breath in to fill our lungs and hold onto those happy thoughts for another three seconds.
4. We then turn our hands to face downward, pushing our palms slowly to the ground over a final three seconds, “Blowing out the darkness” — those things that make us feel pain, discomfort, anger, sadness and fear.
5. At the very bottom, when we think we have no more air, we push out the last bit our breathe while placing our hands as far down as they will go. Then start the process again, for as many times as needed, to feel the light inhabit one’s bodies. Continue the thought process of breathing in the good things in our life and blowing out the darkness.
Bryan Gottlieb is a freelance writer in Detroit and a media consultant working with Kids Kicking Cancer.