This Florida vet’s organization is helping people who have lost their way or are on shaky ground find their footing
Kathryn Thomas, a 32-year-old former Navy helicopter pilot and the mother of a 5-month-old daughter, breathes deeply as she heads to one of the two jobs she holds down. She’s Director of Operations for the Yoga Service Council, which helps cover the family’s bills. And she’s also Executive Director of her own nonprofit startup, Yoga 4 Change—a position that hasn’t yet paid her a dime, but yields countless rewards by transforming her community, one person at a time.
Yoga 4 Change is based in Jacksonville, Florida and Thomas founded the organization in 2014 after injuring her ankle and medically retiring from the military. Its impactful work is helping vulnerable youth, veterans, incarcerated adults and those suffering from substance abuse gain emotional stability, improve their coping skills and become happier, more productive members of society.
Thomas’ entrepreneurial endeavors have just earned her a $5000 prize from Bunker Labs, a Florida organization that empowers military veterans to be entrepreneurs and innovation leaders.
How Yoga 4 Change Got Its Start
Thomas’ desire to serve began early. Her father was in the Navy and she recognized her calling when she was just 11 years old while watching a helicopter demonstration on his ship: “I knew what I wanted to do from that point on,” she says. “I eventually received a ROTC scholarship, went to the University of Rochester in New York and then, after being commissioned, entered flight school and became a helicopter pilot in the Navy, where I served for seven years.”
A similar epiphany sparked the launch of Yoga 4 Change. Thomas began practicing yoga after a surgical procedure on her injured ankle caused her to lose all feeling in her left leg. Crucially, the yoga practice allowed her to shift her focus from what she could no longer physically accomplish to what she could.
“With yoga, I could just focus on breathing and moving. I began to feel less stress and was able to clear my head and think about everything I could still do with my life.”
Thomas took up teacher training for yoga when her husband, who is active duty, was transferred from Florida to Hawaii. The training involved bringing yoga into prisons on the island of Oahu and engaging men who, like her, had taken one bad step that had upheaved their entire life plan and trajectory. “Just as it had for me, yoga allowed them to stop worrying and instead think about future possibilities,” Thomas says. “When my husband and I moved back to Florida, I decided I would start Yoga 4 Change and bring the calmness and mindfulness techniques I had learned in Hawaii to Jacksonville.”
The Approach to Instruction
While Thomas herself is certified in Hatha and Baptiste Yoga, the instruction approach Yoga 4 Change takes represents a blend of styles that is trauma-informed. “We have 11 contracted teachers who represent different styles of Yoga and came to us with a variety of credentials,” she says. “What we all focus on is the impact that the things we teach and refrain from teaching will have. The ways in which we ask our students to breathe and move are specifically tailored to the trauma that’s occurred in their lives and their vulnerabilities.”
Yoga 4 Change may have launched with classes for incarcerated populations but it quickly expanded to include classes for veterans, individuals with substance abuse problems and vulnerable youth. Thomas explains that her own past military service prompted her to want to include veterans in her programs. And the frequency of substance abuse among vets, incarcerated adults and vulnerable youth made her feel that it was important to utilize her nonprofit to target that issue as well. Explaining her desire to incorporate youth programs, Thomas says that preventing first-time incarceration is perhaps a more achievable objective than reducing recidivism. “If you are able to reach juveniles before they enter the correctional system, there’s a good chance they’ll never go to jail or prison,” Thomas says. “But once they’ve been arrested, over 80% are going to re-offend and go back.”
Success Stories Are Piling Up
During the short amount of time the organization has been operational, it has had many successes and Thomas recounts the positive outcomes with pride. “One jailed participant, Alan, has been an addict since the age of 18 and has been incarcerated over 30 times,” she says. “He’s had a history of being very angry and very prone to fighting. Yoga, he says, has given him a way to be still and calm, and since taking it up, he’s been clean and has been able to change his life.”
Thomas underscores the significant ripple effect that improving the lot of one person has: “We’ve been working with victims of Military Sexual Trauma and the counselors from Project Odyssey (a Wounded Warrior Project program) who are involved tell us that we’ve been able to totally alter the victims’ outlook on life. I taught a class on yoga-style breathing and how that inhaling and exhaling feels in the body. Afterward, a veteran came up to me and told me that she had never breathed like this before and was experiencing her body in a whole new way.”
“With reduced levels of stress and anxiety, program participants are able to connect with their families in a different way and de-escalate stressful situations. We’re also focused on working with family members of incarcerated individuals so that when they get out and reintegrate into society, they have a unit that’s supportive of them and can prevent them from falling back into the same old habits. That’s the kind of change we want to see!”
Breadth of the Program
To date, Yoga 4 Change has partnered with over 70 different nonprofits, correctional facilities and schools; has taught nearly 21,000 individuals; and has an over 80% retention rate among participants. Currently, the nonprofit offers 21 classes a week, 50 weeks a year. In Duval County District, the group conducts classes in one high school, one middle school and three elementary schools every semester.
“KIPP Impact Middle School is an alternative school for individuals in this district who live in a very poverty-stricken area,” says Thomas. “The school did not have any suspensions from the beginning of the school year to the middle of October, and the principal attributes this—and the fact that they no longer have bullying issues and outbursts—to yoga classes, which we give to the entire school once a week. By comparison, other schools in the Duval County School District have suspensions every day.”
On top of its weekly programs, Yoga 4 Change has forged partnerships with other organizations that don’t have populations needing to be served on a weekly basis, such as Wounded Warrior Project and Jasmine, a local LGBTQ Youth organization.
In addition to its robust school programs, partnerships with such organizations as the Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity enable Yoga 4 Change to cater to kids of all ages, from kindergartners to high school seniors. “We are seeing children in many different situations,” says Thomas. “All of them have either experienced trauma or are considered at-risk. Health Zone 1 in Jacksonville is one of the worst health zones in the state and we offer programs there to help with hypertension issues. People can bring their children and a kids yoga teacher teaches them while an adult yoga teacher teaches a class for the parents. In this way, the adults can just focus on themselves.”
In all cases, students who are no longer able to participate in yoga classes through the facilities and programs where they were first taught can take advantage of open classes that Yoga 4 Change has begun offering.
Bunker Labs Prize
When Thomas heard about the recent Bunker Labs Southeast Muster event that would take place in her area, she immediately applied to attend. Not long after, she learned that she could pitch her business concept to judges and was quite excited about the possibility of getting their feedback. “I love learning how I can improve the way I talk about Yoga 4 Change,” she says. “When I did the pitch, I felt I had succeeded in talking about the organization in a powerful way. Sometimes, it’s really hard for people to wrap their heads around what we’re doing–they wonder, for example, how yoga can help a veteran struggling with PTSD. But during the pitch, I was able to capture the program and our dramatic outcomes succinctly, in about five minutes.”
Thomas recalls hearing many good entrepreneurial ideas and pitches at the muster. “The diversity of the people attending helped us all focus on our ideas and our businesses in new ways,” she says. “I was so honored to win and get this wonderful validation—it got others interested in learning more about our organization and fueled collaborations. The prize money is going directly back into our program, so we can continue to pay our teachers who are positively impacting people’s lives on a daily basis.”
Entrepreneurship: An Ideal Pursuit After Military Service
Thomas’s military service was a perfect training ground for launching and running Yoga 4 Change. “I was the only female in my entire detachment, so I had to work with and for men, and be in charge of them,” Thomas says. “I learned a lot about how to connect and collaborate with people from totally different backgrounds. But perhaps the biggest thing I learned is to give everybody a chance.
“Being a Navy helicopter pilot taught me to never give up. When you attempt to land on the back of a pitching, rocking boat at night, in bad weather, you might have a good landing or you might not. You might need to wave off, or just stick it out. So, I don’t have a problem now with waving off or modifying an idea that isn’t working. I know I don’t know everything and I just persevere.”
“As a woman entrepreneur, I have to do the same—I have to deal with people who under different circumstances I never would have the opportunity to interact with, and just like before, I have no idea what I’m going to learn from them. But since it’s likely to be major, I need to stay open. Being open to different ideas and to implementing feedback is so important. I really respect anybody who takes the time to give me their thoughts and I’ve learned that though it’s fine to want to reinvent the wheel, you should really try to avoid making the same mistakes someone else has made. That’s just a waste of time.”
Thomas says she is always looking for corporate sponsors, board members and ways to expand Yoga 4 Change, and she wants to continue collaborating with other organizations and getting constructive feedback. “There’s a great need for this type of mindfulness and trauma healing,” she says. “Anyone who wants to get in contact with us definitely should. I’m going to work on being as organizationally sound and sustainable as possible here in Jacksonville, and then I’d love to create Yoga 4 Change chapters in other areas of the country. ”