Project Pneuma uses yoga and martial arts, and other tools to help the youths cope better and give them more chances and support for success in school and in life. Seeing the barriers and extra challenges that black youth must face in the US, Damion J. Cooper took a potentially traumatic incident from his own life and turned it into an inspired project to spark new hope and new lives for young black boys in Baltimore.
Cooper founded Project Pneuma in 2014. His vision was to work with boys in 4th to 8th grade so they have tools within themselves to help them focus when they start high school. The initiative intends to document their work with the boys for a period of 12 months and continue to support them through high school and even to college to ensure their best chance for success.
Using Yoga and Martial Arts to Beathe New Life
The program includes various activities to enrich the lives of the boys in the program. They read and write poetry, learn foreign languages, and practice meditation, martial arts and yoga. In addition, Cooper holds manys of the classes at the Baltimore City Public Safety & Training Facility where officers and cadets are also invited to participate to encourage cooperation, empathy, and undestanding among police and young black men who were deemed to have behavioral problems.
The volunteers at Project Pneuma are also all men to give the boys strong masculine role models who don’t buy into stereotypes of machisimo, violence, or prejudice that black youth are trouble or don’t get along with police.
He said that through meditation, yoga and martial arts exercises, the boys learn focus, balance, and and sense of inner calm,
According to Cooper, the young men who are in Project Pneuma have been getting higher grades and none of them have been suspended from school.
From Anger to Forgiveness To Project Pneuma
Cooper shared in an interview with The Baltimore Sun that the journey to start dedicating his life in service to the black youth in Baltimore began in 1992. On October 13 of that year to be exact when he was a student and wrestler at Coppin State University. On that day, he was shot in an alleyway by two teens who were not identified in newspaper reports at the time. He said that the bullet narrowlly missed his heart ut broke his ribs and damaged the nerves in his rigth arm.
For the next four years, he held the anger and resentment against his attackers inside him. He dropped out of school and began questioning his faith in God, But even though he was leading himself on a self-destructive path, a sermon he heard at East Baltimore’s New Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church,made him realize he had to let go of his anger and get his life back together. He returned to school and began volunteering at the Baltimore jail complex as a mentor to the inmates.
He said he had been mentoring for more than a year before he realized that one of his mentees was the very man who shot him those years ago. When he shared this revelation to the inmate, he shared that they both broke down in tears, but for Cooper, the most heaking moment came when he told his attacker – whom he held so much anger against for so many years – that he forgave him.
Cooper said that he and the man still talk on the phone every Saturday and said it inspires him to keep Project Pneuma going,
“If I can forgive the man who shot me, I can teach these boys they can forgive…” he said.
The word penuma is originally Greek, meaning breath, but more specifically spirit – similar to the concept of Prana in yoga. Cooper calls it the Breathe of Life which he and his team aim to breathe into the boys to motivate them to lead better lives despite the challenges they will face.
As stated in Project Pneuma’s website, which is part of a motivational poem that the boys recite:
“The mission of Project Pneuma is to breathe new life holistically into the young men we serve by challenging them intellectually, strengthening them physically, nuturing them emotionally, and uplifting them spiritually… I choose to live by choice and not by chance. To be motivated, not manipulated… I choose self-esteem, not self-pity… I choose to do things that others won’t, so I can continue to do things others can’t…”
For more information about Project Pneuma and ways to volunteer and support the initiative, visit their official website and Facebook Page.