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Calmer Choice: Helping Young People Develop Inner Resilience

by Diane Kovanda

Four years ago, Fiona Jensen was standing in her kitchen watching her daughter and 4 teen friends struggle with anger and sadness after attending the funeral of a friend who'd been brutally murdered. This funeral came just a month after another student in their class had died in a car accident.

One friend was addicted to Oxycontin, one was taking anti-anxiety medication, another was throwing up every morning due to anxiety, and another was on anti-depressants to help with her moods. Fiona looked around and thought "What the heck is going on? Someone needs to do something to help."

Later that summer, two teens from her daughter's high school ended their lives by suicide; the need to do something became even more urgent. Instead of despairing, Fiona chose to take action.

In her own life, Fiona had experienced great benefit from the University of Massachusetts Medical Center's Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program, created by the renowned author Jon Kabat-Zinn. She found in MBSR a powerful tool for mitigating and dealing with stress, pain, and anxiety. The seed of a plan began to germinate.

She began looking for a way to bring the benefits of mindfulness to the Cape's young people to help bolster their emotional coping skills and enhance their inner resilience.

At the time, Fiona was taking a leadership course which included a clear goal of making a specific, measurable difference in her community. With support and mentoring from a sizable, caring and concerned community, she has made that difference in many young people's lives.

She asked the MBSR teacher who'd taught her on the Cape if he would be willing to teach at the high school. He said yes.

With no previous experience, Fiona began organizing the "DeStress Express 5K Race" to raise the money so students could take the program. It was to be one program in one class, or so she thought at the time.

She didn't know how to get the program accepted at her daughter's school, yet still felt a calling to do something. She describes her attitude as "throwing her keys over the fence", making the strong commitment, and then figuring things out from there.

In October 2009, forty-two runners ran the "De-Stress Express", raising $5,000, enough to pay for 2 pilot programs in school. The road race was a turning point as Fiona got support from her community.

Word got out and she received calls from other schools. She participated in a community forum given by the Youth Suicide Coalition, where she really comprehended the impact of what this could turn into: a grass-roots community-based, non-profit organization with deep and lasting impact.

In 2010, Fiona founded Calmer Choice, a nonprofit educational program that nurtures inner resilience and brings mindfulness programs into the local schools.

With a team of instructors, a board of directors and many dedicated community volunteers, including the young people Calmer Choice serves, they are helping kids throughout many Cape Cod school systems to cultivate a sense of inner resilience. The organization's vision is "a world in which young people lead lives of kindness and compassion towards themselves and others."

As a full time occupational therapist for the VNA, and the parent of 3 kids, Fiona was not looking for a new career. Yet answering the need of teens like her daughter for tools to deal with extraordinarily difficult situations, she connected with people in the community who became committed to sharing her vision.

She realized that for a training to be effective and reach the students who so needed these tools, it would have to be integrated right into their school day.

Katie Medlar, who has been teaching for 20 years, currently teaches Calmer Choice in 1st through 12th grades from Nauset to the Quashnet school systems. "Teaching mindfulness to children and youth is like a dream come true for me. Having seen the stress, anxiety and levels of trauma that goes on for them, I always wished there were some way to help…mindfulness is not just a class or 16 classes, it is a way of being that, when practiced, will stay with the students for their lifetime," she says.

A Calmer Choice Team
A Calmer Choice Team

Calmer Choice exists to address the issues of violence, suicide, and self destructive behaviors in our young people by providing mindfulness training, which builds skills to manage stress, resolve conflict and develop inner strength to lead happy, healthy and meaningful lives.

"The most satisfying aspect of this for me is that I get to watch them help themselves and become aware of their capacity to calm themselves down…to watch them self-regulate through knowing that we all have a quiet-still place inside of us that we can always go to, no matter what chaos is going on around us," explains Katie.

"These are not techniques, and mindfulness is not "to get rid of stress". Rather it teaches us how to be with stress, anxiety and difficult emotions in a new way when they arise, because they will arise."

Continuing to improve and flourish as the field expands with more research and programs, Calmer Choice programming has provided to close to 4,000 students from pre-K through high school, and has been offered in 6 school districts, in 14 schools across Cape Cod.

Courtney Poignand, LMHC, teaches the Calmer Choice program in Nauset Middle School. "Fiona is a compassionate visionary. She has created a life affirming teaching organization which leads children to develop lifelong tools to manage the stresses of today's fast paced world in a healthy way.

"As a teacher within Calmer Choice and as a longtime therapist and coach who helps people with their personal and professional development, I am consistently impressed with Fiona's own commitment and practices to develop herself as an effective and successful business leader."

Denise Fronius, a Brewster elementary school principal where Calmer Choice provides programming states, "Fiona Jenson's compassionate enthusiasm for bringing mindfulness to the schools is greatly appreciated. When students learn the technique of simply using the breath to manage their busy minds, they are better able to focus in the classroom and at the same time cultivate a lifestyle that is calm, accepting and healthy."

Fiona has a way of connecting with inspiring people who share her vision. After she met MBSR creator Jon Kabat-Zinn, at a conference, he came to Cape Cod Community College to give a presentation to over 600 community members. After his visit, he became an honorary Calmer Choice board member and continues to be a mentor.

At another conference, Fiona met Congressman Tim Ryan, from Ohio, author of "a Mindful Nation." He was also willing to speak at the Community College to help raise awareness of the positive benefits of mindfulness practice.

Adria Kennedy, MSN, PMHNP-BC along with Katie Medlar and a team of other instructors have been working hard to meticulously assemble a Calmer Choice teaching manual containing lessons that specifically address the Social and Emotional Health strand of the Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for Comprehensive Health.

Calmer Choice received approval from the Institutional Review Board at Tufts University, ensuring that the organization maintains the highest level of ethical care in its program evaluation. Ensuring both the effectiveness and the appeal to students and teachers has been a key to the success of the Calmer Choice program in schools.

The very experienced instructors for Calmer Choice are one of the reasons the program is so successful. They share a deep respect and caring for the young people they work with.

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Molly Alvin taught kindergarten through 6th grade for Calmer Choice at Ezra Baker School, Orleans Elementary School, and Nauset Youth Alliance after school program. "I feel so blessed and privileged to have found Calmer Choice last summer. I had left my job and was looking for something where I could work and be more appreciated... I wanted to contribute in a meaningful way and also do something related to my interests and education.

"I started volunteering with curriculum development. I had studied mindfulness in college and dreamed of one day working in the schools teaching all kinds of mindfulness... I never thought I would have this opportunity so soon! I love the work Calmer Choice is doing and it has been a great honor to represent Calmer Choice in the schools and the community abroad - people seem to be like thirsty sponges soaking up everything I have to share about it. People really need this. Kids need it - they want it and love it. What we teach is so simple but we have to keep teaching it!"

Fiona is encouraged. "We have made a difference in many kids' lives and have also been getting calls from outside agencies. Counselors in those agencies found that the children they were serving talked about using their "calmer choices" instead of fighting or losing it. Calmer Choice continues to teach these outside agencies about mindfulness and how they can reinforce it with their patients.

"The biggest challenge is getting the horse before the cart from a financial standpoint so we can pay our instructors and program developers. If my mind was in charge, I would never do this, it had to be my heart." Fiona poses the question, "If not you, then who?"

Who would have thought a community in such anguish would be able to create something so healing and powerful? Fiona is clear Calmer Choice is "not about me, it's about people who came together when our community was in crisis and we created the miraculous."

Calmer Choice is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit. If you would like to receive more information, donate, or help to get the Calmer Choice program to more communities, please contact Fiona at 508-737-4145 or by email:

Photographs courtesy of Diane Kovanda

Diane Kovanda

Diane Kovanda, M.Ed, is the Director of Kind Yoga Teacher Training

She is also the co-founder of The Calm Warrior Training Inc., which provides criminal justice professionals with stress reduction and decompression tactics.

Diane is also the co-Founder of Cape Cod Yoga Association