In honor of a new year beginning, we'd like to share the tale of our own beginning--the birth of Challenge to Change. This is also the story of our founder, Molly Schreiber. You can read an abridged version Molly's story in our published book, Grow: Tending to the Minds and Hearts of Young Children.
I grew up in Bellevue, Iowa with an ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) score of zero. I literally had a white picket fence around my home. It was a beautiful upbringing filled with love from my parents, two sisters and one baby brother. I was very involved with all things in my small Catholic school and our community. After graduating from high school, I moved to the “big city” of Dubuque, Iowa to attend Clarke University where I studied elementary education. It was there that I met my first love, Kyle Andersen.
Our passion for education was matched by our energetic personalities and fiery red hair. Meeting Kyle was probably the first time I recognized a deep inner knowing that I was exactly where I was supposed to be with the person I was supposed to be with. After graduation we were married, and pursued our Master’s Degrees and careers in education. Upon finishing our degrees, we were blessed with our first baby, Margaret. When I held Maggie for the first time, it was my second time of deeply knowing I was on my path to my purpose. Maggie’s red hair, blue eyes, and freckles made her look just like her dad. I felt so much love and completion in being her Mom and Kyle’s wife.
Kyle and I thought being parents was the best thing in the world. Our life was simple. We put puzzles together, watched our baby learn to sit up, and we were completely captivated with all of the moments of parenthood. Before I knew what Mindfulness was, I was practicing it in these small moments with my husband and our sweet, sweet baby. We were present, aware, and connected. I remember looking at Maggie and Kyle and feeling that this was my dream life; we were building a beautiful and simple life, just as I had had as a child.
When Maggie was eighteen months old, Kyle and I decided we wanted to expand our family. It was then I learned that sometimes when you ask God for something, He answers your prayers and then some. This time He blessed us with two babies!--our twins Jacob and Maria. While we had been preparing for the birth of the twins, Kyle and I realized that something in our lives needed to change before their arrival. We decided that we would both shift our roles: I would leave my first grade classroom teaching job to dedicate my time and energy to staying home with our children, and Kyle began exploring career options in school administration.
Kyle became the assistant high school principal in his hometown of Fort Dodge, Iowa, which was three hours from our home in Dubuque. A year and a lifetime of change began. I transitioned from being a full time teacher to being a passionate stay-at-home mom, while Kyle began his new administrative role. Together we settled into our new community.
This was simultaneously one of the busiest and most joyous times of my life. While it was the least amount of sleep I have ever had, and I was completely out of touch with the outside world, I remember feeling so proud that I could differentiate each child's cry, and that during those long nights and early mornings we were building our dream life each day. However, while I was being extremely attentive and in tune with each child's and my husband's needs, I was failing to take care of my own. It was the least mindful I'd ever been of my own self-care.
At this time, some friends in the community shared with me that the local YMCA offered two hours of free childcare for anyone who was there exercising. They invited me to join them , and so I started to "work out" as a form of self-care. I would attend a spin class and then savor a cup of coffee afterwards with a friend, or take a fitness class and then enjoy a long, hot uninterrupted shower in the ladies' locker room.
I began to tell the difference in myself on the days when I took the time to move my body and the days that I did not. One day I decided I would try a yoga class. While the instructor was not formally trained in how to teach yoga, I remember them as being the best classes ever because the teacher constantly reminded me to connect to my breath.
I've been told all my life that I was a hyper child. I remember being told to, "Calm down," and not knowing what that should look like. It was in these first yoga classes that I FELT calm for the first time. This sudden understanding made me realize that I wanted to offer this feeling to my own children so that they could know what it means to feel calm from a young age.
I also realized other changes in myself when I stepped off the yoga mat in those first classes. I found I was not as critical of myself as a mother. I stopped comparing myself to others and could manage the stress of three children crying much more effectively. The work I was doing on my yoga mat to calm my nervous system was beginning to transfer to my life off of the mat. I was unaware as of yet, though, how to fully translate these changes into a lifestyle.
Later that year in May, my little brother was graduating from high school. I decided to drive the three kids and myself back to my hometown of Bellevue for the event while Kyle stayed back to prepare for his own school's graduation celebration. As I tucked my three children into bed at my parents' home that Thursday evening, I vividly remember praying to God and saying, "I have the best life. Thank you for everything you have given me. I know that there are other people in the world who need more than I do. Please know that I have enough and I am grateful." Within an hour I was woken up by a phone call saying that Kyle had been in a car accident and was being life-flighted to a major hospital in Des Moines, Iowa.
When my dad and I got into the car to drive to Des Moines, we were aware that Kyle’s accident was serious, but did not know much more than that. We received more information as we drove. Kyle had fallen asleep at the wheel two hundred yards from our home on his way back from his high school’s graduation celebration. The impact had severely torn his aorta. Normally car accident patients bleed out immediately if they suffer this type of injury, but Kyle’s outer layer of his aorta was still intact, which was keeping him alive.
The fact that Kyle was so tired that he had fallen asleep at the wheel did not surprise me. Before the children and I left for our trip, Kyle had insisted on helping me as much with their care as possible since he knew I would be without my parenting teammate for the long weekend and he knew he would miss his “Dad Time” while we were gone. Kyle had done all the night feedings and morning routines in the days leading up to our departure. This was just the man he was—always sharing his love and his energy freely with others.
My dad and I hurried down the dark roads as fast as safety would allow, anxious to get to Kyle in his time of need. Before they had intubated Kyle for his flight to Des Moines, I had been able to speak with him on the phone. I will never forget his words. “I am so sorry. I am really scared. If anything happens to me, take good care of the kids and know that I love you.” This is a moment I will forever cherish and remember.
When I arrived at the hospital, Kyle lit up. He was still intubated and squeezed my hand tightly as I spoke with his nurses. He had already undergone one surgery to repair his artery, and they explained that they would have to do another operation in the morning to set the leg he had broken in the accident. I sat with him through the night, and again felt deeply connected to my inner knowing and peace as we communicated through blinking our eyes and squeezing our hands together.
The next morning before surgery, Kyle's parents, my dad, my sister and I were all able to be with Kyle. We were feeling incredibly hopeful since the surgery for his leg was minor compared to the surgery that he had already survived.
After Kyle was wheeled into surgery, we all went into the hospital cafeteria to wait. We were having breakfast when the nurse rushed in. She brought us to a room where we were greeted by his doctor. I remember thinking it was odd that the doctor who was supposed to be performing his surgery was standing in front of me. The doctor and nurse explained that when they were moving Kyle from his bed to the operating table, his heart rate dropped and he coded.
"We are having troubles," the doctor said. "The surgery isn't going as planned. Do you want to get a priest?" At the time, I had no idea what was going on. I remember feeling like I was moving through water with everything in slow motion.
I cannot recall the timeline of things or the events that followed with much clarity. I remember the nurses coming to tell me that they had lost Kyle. I was not hysterical. I did, however, feel my heart stop. I asked for a Bible and for the priest to read with me. I read passages of scripture and shared my interpretations of them with the priest. The Bible passages became like mantras for me in that moment. I remember saying things to myself like, "Everything is perfect in its own time. Do not rush anything," and, "Our Heavenly Father knows our needs and the process that must take place for these to happen." The priest told me that someday I would find comfort in these messages. Even in this, the darkest moment of my life, I remember feeling that I was meant for a higher purpose and that this was happening for me, not to me.
When Kyle died, I knew I had two choices: I could pull the covers up over my head and give up as I was swallowed by the pain, or I could come out kicking and screaming. I knew that when I got home, I would have three little sets of eyes watching my every move, and they needed to see a strong mother and woman. I flung the covers off and never looked back. I hit the ground running and began making decisions about donating Kyle's organs and tissues, arranging for the funeral, and planning my family's future.
Finally, it was time to return to Bellevue and my three children who were waiting at my parents' house. At the time, Maggie was three and the twins were fifteen months old. When I got back into town, I went directly to the park to meet Maggie and our daycare provider. As I approached the park, Maggie was in a swing about fifty yards away from me. I looked at her and she looked at me. Between us, a lifetime of conversation happened. Her grandma had told Maggie earlier that her dad had died, but the moment I saw her and she looked into my eyes, she knew it was real. Her eyes asked, "Are we going to be okay, Mom?" Mine replied, "Yes, Maggie, we are."
I proceeded with life the best I could in each moment that unfolded. I made the decision to move back to Dubuque and return to my old teaching job at the elementary school. That summer and the changes it brought was hard, but I did my best to bring in safety, security, and peace for my children. It's interesting to look back in retrospect because as I decorated our new home, I chose the color red for every accent piece--rugs, picture frames, and vases--which is the color of the root, or grounding, chakra in yoga. It seems as though without even knowing it, I was once again using my deepest inner knowledge to promote stability for my family.
When I went back to teach in the fall, however, I was exhausted and miserable. I was angry, upset, and almost unable to recognize myself. I realized my grief had made its full, ugly presence known when one evening at dinner Jacob pointed to his sippy cup and said, "Jake's sippy cup," and then gestured to my wine glass and said, "Mommy's sippy cup."
Several days later when I went to pick the children up after school, their daycare provider took one look at me and realized things weren't going so well. She reminded me that at Kyle's funeral, which she had attended, I'd said that my goal was to raise happy, healthy, and safe kids. She gestured to me and said, "You are miserable. You cannot possibly raise happy and healthy children if you are not happy and healthy yourself" She gave me a hug and asked, "Honey, what can you do right now that will help take care of you?"
I remembered then how happy the yoga classes at the YMCA back in Kyle's hometown had made me feel, and I mentioned them to her. Knowing that as a single mother I was pinching every penny, she and some other friends put some money together for me so that I could begin taking yoga classes at a local studio called Body & Soul. They even volunteered to watch the children so that I was able to go.
These yoga classes offered me even more of a reprieve than they had in the past. When I was practicing yoga, I not only felt calm and connected to my breath, I also felt deeply connected to Kyle and the knowledge that even though his earthly body was gone, his spirit would always be with me and the kids. It was during this time in my life that I truly found the relationship between yoga and my higher power. Yoga allowed me to connect my mind to my body and my breath to my emotions. When I came off my yoga mat, I felt at peace with who I was and had a clear understanding of who I wanted to be. Ultimately, it was through yoga, therapy, my family, and a really amazing group of girlfriends that I was able to piece myself back together and pursue the happy, healthy life wanted for myself and my children.
Eventually I began dating. I knew how awesome having a life partner was, and I wanted that experience again. After a couple of perfectly nice dates with absolutely no future potential, I was set up with a wonderful man named Tom. When we met for our first date at the local Dairy Queen, we were both incredibly transparent about our pasts, our goals for the future, and who we each were at our deepest core. It was almost as if we started building our life together on that first date. We both knew what we wanted and we knew we wanted to build that together. We got engaged and married quickly, blending our beautiful families. Tom legally adopted my three children, and I was given the gift of a bonus child in his daughter, Sydney.
I continued teaching once we were married. Wanting to be more present with my family, however, I resigned my position two years later. This pause was essential for our blended family to bond and work towards building our own dream life together. When I left the classroom, however, I had the premonition that there was something new beyond our immediate family just waiting on the horizon for me.
At first I was fully immersed in being a mom, wife, and friend again. This time, however, I was careful to be much more mindful of my own self-care and practicing yoga remained a part of my daily routine. Always one who wanted to move harder and faster in life--running marathons and doing anything that wouldn't require me to sit with myself for too long had become a way of life after Kyle died--I even enrolled in a teacher training course with the goal of becoming a power yoga teacher. However, I emerged from this training not fired up to intensify my physical yoga practice, but rather having developed a love of sitting in meditation with my breath. It's funny how those things transpire.
It was as though everything in my life clicked right at that moment and all my past moments--from first finding my breath on my yoga mat at the YMCA, to Kyle and I watching our children in awe as they grew, to the the turbulent time of Kyle's death and returning to the classroom, to finally finding serenity and connection with Kyle's spirit at Body & Soul--came together to form one cohesive picture. When I had been sitting on my mat in my yoga teacher training, I had found my mind coming again and again to the idea of bringing yoga to children. Everything just started to make sense to me when I paused to put the pieces together, and I could feel my purpose unfolding.
When I stepped back into the classroom after Kyle died, I realized how much can change in just a short period of time. Compared to when I'd first started teaching, it seemed that my students were now less focused and increasingly emotional, and my coworkers appeared more stressed and more on edge than ever before. It didn't take much introspection to understand that technology was now driving society--and education--to move much faster and to keep everyone readily accessible and available. In fact, the first text message I ever received had been while I was sitting in the hospital waiting room after Kyle's death, and in my classroom I was now regularly communicating through email and texts. It seemed to me that these changes in our lives were creating a sense of heightened urgency and increased anxiety.
Yoga and meditation for self-regulation was the missing link I saw in education. I personally had experienced a traumatic experience with ensuing grief that had fundamentally changed me, and it was the gift of yoga that had brought me back to the vest version of myself. I kept thinking, "What if I could do this for children, too?" And so I did.
I began teaching kids' yoga around the Dubuque area in studios and inside my own children's elementary school classrooms. In my pursuit, I searched for a well accredited children's yoga teacher program, and received my certification through the Global Family Yoga organization. Here I learned the best practices for teaching yoga to children, and combined this knowledge with what I knew to be best practices for teaching kids in the classroom. From here I realized that I wanted to offer a physical space for children to practice yoga in the same way that adults do.
I shared my vision with Tom, who was as enthusiastic about this idea as I was. With his encouragement and support, I was able to open the doors of Challenge to Change in July of 2016. Here we were able to not just offer children a place to practice yoga, but were also able to provide continuing education opportunities for teachers and parents to learn how they could be more mindful when interacting with their own children and students. I wasn't ready to stop there, however.
As a former teacher, my mission was always to get into the classroom and offer these practices to children who might not have the resources to make it into a studio class. When we are teaching mindfulness to children, we always tell them that we can be our best selves when we, "Connect our smart minds to our kind hearts and our calm bodies."
This is an important message for children to hear. They need to know that they have smart minds and they are in control of their own thinking. We remind them that they have kind hearts and that they have the power to choose to be kind to anyone at any time--including themselves. We also let children know that it is okay to feel your feelings, but there are ways to calm our bodies so that strong emotions do not manifest themselves in punching, kicking, hitting, or living an unhealthy lifestyle.
With this in mind, I moved forward with looking into how I could bring these teachings into our elementary schools. The school district and I looked into how we could partner together to make this vision a reality. This was how the Yoga in the Schools project began, with four schools--two of the highest socioeconomic in our district and two of the lowest--participating.
At the time, it was myself and three of my girlfriends going into classrooms carrying bags of lavender-scented eye pillows to teach yoga and mindfulness once a month in each classroom. To see if our lessons were effective, we had partnered with the University of Kansas to engage in a study of whether or not yoga and mindfulness could positively impact children's social-emotional regulation skills, and whether or not socio-economic status played a part.
It was also around this time that I began to attract even more amazing people into my life. Many wonderful women came to me who wanted to join my mission to teach yoga and mindfulness in the schools. This made me see my role as not just pursuing what I felt called to do, but more as one of supporting others on their way to shining their own lights as well. By the second year of the Yoga in the Schools program, we had grown to serving nine schools, and by year three, we were in thirty-two schools. Not only this, but we had developed an online curriculum for educators to access, and we had established our own yoga teachers certification program for those who wished to teach both adults and children.
Our mission has grown and spread because of the love and energy around it. My trauma--and my own challenge to change--has created a ripple effect of learning, growing, healing, and sharing in the world. I cannot say that I am grateful for Kyle's death, but I do know that I would not be doing what I am without it, and I am grateful for all who have come into my life and inspired me to help make our world a better place.
I hope my story can be a reminder that the obstacles, traumas, and setbacks in your own life can be your challenge to change. You alone have the ability to determine the direction your life takes. Sometimes it is not about changing your circumstances, but about changing your point of view. No matter what life throws your way, you have the ability to manage your emotional responses and to use your energy to inspire compassion for yourself and others. You do not need to experience a great loss or trauma to make change for yourself, though. You can do that right here and right now.
It is a challenge to change yourself. It is a challenge to change the world. But the world is so, so worth it--and so are you.