Mary Ward Lupinacci
By: USA Games Correspondent, Mike Gastineau
Most people who have ever taken a yoga class would agree that the completion of a good, long session of down-dogging, tree posing, and “ommmm”-ing is good for the body, mind, and soul.
Count Mary Ward Lupinacci in that group. Lupinacci is a teacher, counselor, and yoga instructor. As she taught, counseled, and instructed people in the finer points of yoga, she reached a point where she realized that some of the things that yoga and mindfulness impart on people might be particularly valuable for kids with intellectual disabilities or simply kids who were facing challenges in certain areas of their lives.
From that realization, Be Still Kids was born. Be Still Kids is a Spokane, Washington based program that aims to make all kids healthier and help them use yoga to develop the skills and discipline necessary to take on the not always simple task of being a kid.
“She thought it made sense to have a place where kids could do that with other kids without the isolation and separating out that can tend to happen when we have programs that differentiate,” said her husband John Lupinacci. “She wanted to find a way to have yoga and mindfulness as a day-to-day practice contribute to what inclusion means in a community.”
The Lupinacci’s have worked together in the past at summer camps designed for people with intellectual disabilities. Mary worked in special education and as a counselor and began using mindfulness and yoga as a part of how she worked with kids, especially those who were working on how to self-regulate. The idea evolved into a bigger vision to have a place where young people could use yoga to help develop their identity. John nominated his wife for recognition by the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games as part of the #ImAGameChanger campaign. He admits he’s biased, but says it’s with good reason.
“Nothing has been more inspiring than witnessing her working with school leaders to stop punishing and isolating children with diverse abilities,” he said. “She encourages educators and parents to use inclusive yoga and mindfulness practices with children to engage all learners together in spaces that mirror the kinds of communities we all dream possible for our children.”
To that end, Mary’s classes are not designed specifically for kids with intellectual disabilities. Any child can join as long as he or she is willing to work in an environment inclusive of all children.
Mary has two studios in Spokane. In addition to working with kids at both locations, she travels around the state and the country to work with school districts and teachers and shares what she’s learned about stereotypes on both sides of this story.
“So much of yoga is focused on adults and able-body movement,” John said. “Her work defies the status quo of who can participate and benefit from yoga and mindfulness practice. She knew it would be healthy for children, but she also knew a lot of them didn’t have access to a program that would work. So she said, ‘I’m just going to do this.’ She got to a point where she thought of this simple idea that would address a need. It wasn’t there and it wasn’t available. So she made it available.”
Part of that idea was making Be Still Kids available on a donation-based platform. Some families are able to afford to pay, so they pay. Others pay what they can afford and try to make up the difference by donating their time to help.
“She wanted it to be accessible to everyone,” said John. “Learning about yourself, and being in tune with your body is so healthy. Her thought was, ‘why can’t that be something that all kids are learning about and have access to?’”
As part of training and consulting other school districts and community centers, she steps out of yoga and proposes inclusiveness in other areas. “She might talk to a rock climbing group and present them ideas to get all people involved in rock climbing,” said John. “That’s exciting!”
Another exciting thing for John is the idea that his wife has hit on something that could be easily monetized to a very positive financial gain. But he knows that’s not going to happen.
“I tell her she could charge a ton for this,” he laughed. “But in her mind, this isn’t a commodity and it’s not a charity. It’s just simply what we all should be doing.”