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Dave Beal, Founder Of Brain Power Wellness, Reviews the Organization’s Retreats

Brain Power Wellness is a holistic, school-based wellness organization that supports healthier, happier, more focused school environments. The mission of Brain Power Wellness is to help transform the culture of its partner schools through self-development, mindfulness, community building, retreats, SEL, holistic wellness, and brain training for teachers, students, parents, and administrators.

Brain Power Wellness was founded by Dave Beal, a 5th-grade teacher from Brooklyn, New York. Passionate about empowering his students, Dave saw that they needed help managing stress, and he explored ways to do this in his own life with mindfulness, yoga, and tai chi. After seeing positive changes in his health and a greater connection with his students, Dave integrated mind-body exercises into his classroom. When school administrators saw the results, they asked Dave to develop school-wide mindfulness and SEL programs.

Eventually, Dave left the classroom to share these powerful principles with more students, staff, and schools. Since 2007, Brain Power Wellness has impacted more than 25,000 teachers and half a million students in 500 schools worldwide.

In this interview, Dave Beal, founder of Brain Power Wellness, reviews the various retreats hosted by the organization.

How long has Brain Power Wellness hosted retreats?

We've been hosting these retreats since 2016. We have all different kinds of retreats. The one that we just finished is for teacher leaders. The idea of the Certified Teacher Leader Retreat is to empower one or more teachers to be a point-person to facilitate a vibrant mindfulness and wellness program in school.

What other kinds of retreats do you have?

We have a Family Retreat over the summer. I've actually been running that a long time, about 14 years. The goal of that retreat is to bring families together in a really fun and heartwarming way—just a space where they can connect outside the normal hustle and bustle of day-to-day life. Connecting with nature and just meeting other awesome families and going to have a really fun time but also a very meaningful time. The purpose of the Family Retreat is more healing at the family level.

We run Advance Student Leadership Retreats for selected students from our schools that we've worked with in a leadership capacity.

And we also run Staff Retreats. Those are just individual schools where the majority of the staff will come up together. So that purpose is really to help build culture within the school. There is also a lot of stress management and just having time to get away together, practice wellness, be in nature, and sing and drink at karaoke together. Just be away from our day-to-day stressors and connect as a school community.

Finally, we also run two different retreats for principals and Executive Leadership. In all of the retreats, the similarity is that the goal is to help to grow leaders who can sustain our work.

How do the retreats fit into the overall Brain Power Wellness mission?

The retreats represent the leadership level of our mission. So whether we're with students or teachers or administrators creating a sustainable system in the school, that's how the retreats fit in: having a space to practice wellness and mindfulness in a deeper way. It's one thing when we run a 90-minute workshop at a school, but it's another to attend a three-day retreat where you're fully immersed in this beautiful environment with like-minded people. All day long, you're practicing different exercises to bring to your students, but you're going to have a much deeper takeaway yourself. Retreats deepen the impact of the work that we do. The goal is to inspire the leaders to create a sustainable system in their schools.

How often are these different types of retreats held?

We hold the Teacher Leader Retreat three times a year, and the Executive Leadership and Principal Retreats are in July and August. The Family Retreat is once a year, also the first weekend in August.

Then the Staff Retreats are just held in the fall and the spring over the weekend. Those are pretty frequent. We could run three or even four Staff Retreats in one weekend for three or four different schools. Those are the most popular retreats that we have. But our core Leadership Retreats are three times a year for the teacher leaders, twice for principals, once for advanced students, and once for them.

The Certified Teacher Leader Retreat in November will be our last one until March. Because we do a lot of outdoor work, we avoid the very cold weather.

One I forgot to mention is not so much a retreat but a really big student leadership gathering in May. We have a thousand student leaders that just come up in a day. It's not a sleepover kind of retreat but a celebration of the Student Leadership program they completed that year in their school. So we do a day of team building on the ropes, meditating at the waterfall, and presenting how they've grown as student leaders to the other students there. It's really awesome. It's a full-day program that we're doing there.

How are the retreats generally structured? What kind of activities are there?

The goal for the Teacher Retreats, for example, is for the teachers to deepen their own experience with mindfulness and wellness. So we have some mindfulness and wellness classes just for their self-care. Then we have a lot of activity-based learning. They learn about 50 new activities that they can bring to their students. So it's a dual approach to help them understand the need for wellness, SEL, physical exercise, and community building. They're practicing that actively themselves. But then also, in the context of learning activities they can bring back to their own classroom and school. Everything is structured. It's very experiential.

We also have presentations with a more formal PowerPoint setting. But those presentations are 45 minutes long. The first 25 minutes go through the science and the purpose of whether it's the connection between SEL and academic achievement or physical health and emotional regulation, etc. The first 25 minutes are more scientific and theoretical, and the next 20 to 25 minutes are all experiential activities. Even in a presentation, they will be up and moving and interacting. So we try to keep it very engaging and experiential so that they can have a deep experience themselves and feel equipped to share tangible tools with their students when they get back to their school.

One thing that we always stress—and this is through feedback—is the concept of challenge by choice. The retreats are very physical in nature, but everything is modifiable. In addition to mindfulness and wellness activities and brain breaks that the teachers are learning, we also engage in a lot of self-development training like the ropes course, hiking in nature, and things that most people are super excited about.

Still, we always modify everything based on any physical limitations that folks have. So if they have a problem walking, we take them on a golf cart to the meditation place. Then on the ropes course, everything is modifiable. In all of the activities that we lead them through, we're always careful to modify. Then we always say that everything is "challenge by choice." We find it important to share with people that they're challenging themselves but at a place that feels safe for them to do so.

How have the retreats evolved over the years? How do you envision them growing in the future?

The retreats are getting bigger, which is one great evolution. Particularly, the retreat that we're focused the most on is the Certified Teacher Leader Retreat. With our growth plan, we expect and are excited to have that grow significantly, both in the number of participants in the retreats and the number of retreats themselves.

Also, all of our retreats are currently held in upstate New York because our home base is here in New York City. It's a two-hour drive from the city and very convenient. But we also envision utilizing other facilities around the country as we expand nationally. Honor's Haven will probably always be our most regular retreat location. But, as we grow in other markets, we want to find other really beautiful areas, maybe in the Midwest and the West Coast, where we can also host retreats.

Our goal is to have this kind of Certified Teacher Leader Retreat on a monthly basis for about 150 participants. The largest number we've had up to this point has been just under 100. But with the way that we're getting smarter about how we can run the program efficiently and through small teams providing a lot of individual care to everyone there, we can have a group of 100-150 people. Our goal is also to expand the number of retreats we're hosting.

Actually, I spent all Saturday pouring through the feedback forms from this past retreat and just collecting people's ideas about how we can structure them better. It was really well received. Looking at the feedback forms on a five-star system, we get to 4.8 out of 5, which is very good. But still, we want everyone to have their expectations exceeded. They gave us some really good advice about how we can structure them, maybe even make them a little more spacious. My tendency is to try to put too much in because we want them to have all these tools to take back to their community. And they're like, "But we're in this beautiful place. How about we have some free time?"

So that's my learning. I have to step back a bit and see what we should include in the retreat and then what we can include in the reinforcements, where we meet virtually with them every six weeks. We're still playing with the agenda and the schedule, and we're excited to see how the retreats can evolve that way.

But the biggest thing is that we want to share with more schools. As we get more schools that we're working with, these one or two people become the key to the program's success. So we're really excited to grow the number of participants and the number of retreats.

Do you have a favorite memory from any of the retreats?

The one that comes to mind is the Family Retreat because it's just such a beautiful place for families opening their hearts to each other, including my own family. My wife, son, and I have participated in this retreat for 15 years. My favorite memory is connecting with them. On the last day of the retreat, we write letters to each other and just read those letters to each other. There's a lot of crying, forgiving, apologizing, and recommitting to creating the family we want.

That's not anything I experienced as a child in my own family. It feels really healing and has helped me have a special relationship with my son. He's now 21 years old, but we have a very close relationship because he grew up doing this regularly. Then also, not only for him, but some of the students I've been working with and their families, they've been coming every year for 15 years. So it's a kind of an extended family. Then some of them now volunteer or even work for us over the summer leading the Student Leadership Program. That's always a very special time to see them grow from seven to 21 years old and step into their leadership role, helping the teenagers.

Because in the Family Retreat, a lot of the teenagers will come and they don't want to be there, their parents brought them there. Then they see these really cool 19-, 20-, 21-year-old, really awesome kids, and they're like, "Maybe this isn't so bad." Then they connect with them, and before you know it, they're having an amazing time. My favorite memory is watching my son and his friends grow that way. I keep waiting every year for them to be like, "I'm too cool for this." But they actually text me around April and ask, "What are the days? I got to get the time off work." They're really excited to come. That's my most special memory and take away from the retreats.

Finally, I can't speak enough about our staff. The overwhelming feedback is just how wonderful our team and our staff are. They care so much about the work that we do. They take great care of the participants; they really care about them and get to know them well. Especially for the teacher leaders, we carve out time for them to have long check-ins about the school, what's going well, and how they can help them. In addition to being a really awesome, big-scale event, it's also a way for them to connect well with the field coordinator who's taking care of them in their school. So we try to have our staff feel really supported in their role.



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