It’s been a hard few years for our littlest ones, as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted school patterns and often left stressed parents in the lurch. Esther Yang, the founder and executive director of the after-school nonprofit Super Happy Healthy Kids, is quick to acknowledge this reality. “Ever since the pandemic, I don’t think everybody has recovered,” she told Straus News, clarifying that “if the parents haven’t recovered from the pandemic, it affects the kids at day-school, and that affects the teachers. So the teachers are not fully recovered, and then we get the kids, they’re a little big challenging.”
In other words, her team has also been taking time to “feel centered and grounded...and be still more.” She persuasively compared COVID’s ravaging of the city to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which she mournfully notes took the life of a FDNY friend of hers, Patrick J. Brown.
Of course, if anybody is positioned to promote inner peace for families affected by the turmoil of the past few years, it’s clearly Yang. Her biggest focus–which she has pointedly run for public office on–is the persistent use of yoga in her youth programs. Meditation is an obvious accompaniment. It’s a unique wrinkle, but she does a surefire job of selling it: “We sit in a circle more, because I realize the kids need that intimacy more...we didn’t do that before the pandemic. We gave them a snack and they went straight to activities.” Enjoying some music, which Yang deems sacred, also now features prominently.
Kids want to spend time outside, and Super Happy Healthy Kids fulfills that need by getting kids used to the life-giving tenets of gardening. It’s important for the kids “to water the plants, say hello to the tomatoes,” Yang claims. She adds that she’s grateful that the kids get allocated gardening space from P.S. 184 and P.S. 110 on the Lower East Side. The organization sources their seeds from GrowNYC.
Kids don’t entirely run the show, however. Parents, perhaps feeling overwhelmed and invisible at times, are being courted by Yang with her new “Parents’ Night Out” initiative. “Parent’s need to take a break too,” she accurately notes.
You want a date night with your significant other? Once a month, from 5 to 8 p.m., Yang will gather your kids and let them run wild while you take a load off. “We’re gonna allow them to be in their jammies. You can bring your jammies, you don’t have to think about it,” she quipped. In other words, it’s potentially a pajama party for the whole family, just with the kids having to party somewhere else.
Yet Super Happy Healthy Kids is not merely a gigantic decompression effort for stressed families. Yang is also clear-eyed about who she’s trying to reach, and why that’s important: “My team and I focus on the kids that are voiceless.” She feels that Chinatown is overlooked or forgotten by some New Yorkers, and that partnering with schools specifically located in that area can perhaps rectify that institutional neglect.
The explicit mission of the organization is to change lives via “kind words and kind acts for a peaceful, bully-free world.” Yang calls it a “motto.” It’s a creed that’s perfect for emerging from the long tail of the pandemic, but it also seems somewhat eternal. Each one of her practices–remaining centered, engaging in introspective meditation, taking a few minutes to have kids listen to each other–dovetails neatly with her mission. It’s reassuring that the Golden Rule may be just what kids need to confront a tumultuous educational environment.