HB Volunteers Put Teachings of Ancient Poet in Motion

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The instructions that Shohreh Hejazi gives are precise: “Turn the tooth brush to a 45-degree angle. Now brush along the gum line. See? Like this …”

Hejazi, a dental hygienist, is seated at a table with three kids and one mother in a classroom at Oak View Elementary School in Huntington Beach. After her demonstration, she hands a toothbrush and a set of larger-than-life dentures to 11-year-old Nancy and says, “Show me how you brush.”

Nancy complies, scraping the teeth in delicate circles.

“Nancy,” Hejazi then says in a stern voice. “Do you promise to brush?”

Nancy nods solemnly.

Hejazi is one of a group of Orange County volunteers inspired by a mystic poet from the 13th century, who are offering wellness classes every Tuesday afternoon and evening to students and families in Oak View, a low-income community in Huntington Beach.

Highly congested and so impoverished that 97 percent of its children receive free school lunches, the Oak View neighborhood is an optimal setting for poverty-related illnesses like dental decay, obesity and asthma.

Seeking to reverse these conditions, Fana Global Foundation began sponsoring wellness classes in January. Founders are devotees of Rumi, an ancient Persian mystic whose writing envisions human connection and oneness. A highly read poet in the U.S. in recent years, Rumi appeals to contemporary audiences with his broadly spiritual focus.

It is Rumi’s writings that have inspired Fana volunteers to teach afterschool and evening sessions in yoga, combined martial arts, dance, fitness and dental hygiene. Fana’s founders include a number of physicians, though the decision to offer wellness classes was not as much professional as humanitarian.

The goal is to teach wellness in a way that empowers people, explains founder Dr. Fred Nowroozi, who volunteers for Fana on nights and weekends but by day directs the program in rehabilitation and pain management at St. Jude Medical Center.

“I want these kids and their families to become community leaders in obesity prevention,” he says, noting that obesity is increasingly recognized as a form of malnutrition, alongside hunger.

He reflects on the inspiration for Fana, whose co-founders have been informally studying Rumi together since the early 1990s. “In the beginning in the second book there’s a verse, and it is so great. It says that a fellow man asks, ‘What is love?’ I answered, ‘You will know when you become we.’ From ‘me’ to ‘we.’ ”

Nowroozi was discussing Rumi translations on a blustery night as he stood in a multipurpose room at Oak View, waiting for the Turbo Fit class to begin. Joining him was physical therapist Dee Shaw, who led the class in a number of cardiac and strength-building activities such as a small obstacle course and shadow boxing. Among the regulars there that night were Nancy, her brother and her mother, who took part in all the fitness activities.

“We have a lot of great moms here,” Nowroozi said, referring to Martina, Nancy’s mother.

Martina later explained that every Tuesday she walks her kids to the classes as soon as she comers home from her job as a restaurant cook. Both her daughter, Nancy, and younger son, Guillermo, 5, look forward to the Fana classes.

“My daughter will say ‘Hurry up!’ when it’s time to go to class,” Martina said.

Besides being fun, the classes ensure that the family is exercising. “There are a lot of overweight children in the neighborhood,” Martina said.

Martina also sends her kids to the afterschool yoga class. Once restricted to fourth- and fifth-graders, the class now accepts third-graders with younger siblings sometimes joining in.

At a recent class, one such youngster was 5-year-old Angel, a true yogi in the making. With intense focus, he carefully assumed every stretch and twist that his teacher, Susan Grosfeld, asked of him, even as some older children giggled or stumbled during the exercises.

At the end of the class, Fana co-founder Niloo Nikpour spread a mat on the floor. On it she placed a bowl of pears and a pitcher of water with mint leaves and slices of fruit for the children.

Nikpour recalls that Fana members faced a number of difficulties in starting the wellness classes. For one, working in schools requires thorough background checks, which are time-consuming and expensive.

Also the turnout still is modest for the afterschool classes, with 10 or 12 students and even fewer at night. Finding volunteer instructors who can commit to a year of classes is also a challenge. And Fana has made some mistakes, reserving three buses to transport families to a community 5K walk they organized last fall when only one was needed.

“We were all new,” Nikpour says. “We came with big hearts.”

Fana’s members meet twice monthly at Nowroozi’s house in Newport Beach to discuss philanthropic projects under way. Though only about 15 miles from Oak View, Nowroozi’s home seems worlds away in a gated community of elegant homes and stunning vistas.

But as different as Fana’s founders may seem from the people they hope to empower — largely Mexican immigrants and their children — they share a few important characteristics. Both left their pasts behind and came to the U.S. in search of better futures. Nikpour, for example, sought to escape the Iranian government’s oppression of women.

She arrived with a bachelor’s degree and had studied English. Still, her first job was working after hours at a gas station in a high-crime neighborhood in Northern California. She and her husband struggled to comprehend American dialects, she remembers.

And though they understand the challenges of being outsiders, Fana members want to focus on possibilities rather than hardships, they say.

Their goal is to promote a message of encouragement to Oak View families: “That they can take action,” Nikpour says, “in the face of limitations.”

Amy DePaul is a freelance writer and lecturer in the University of California, Irvine Literary Journalism program. You can reach her directly at depaula@uci.edu

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