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As youth anxiety rises, this N.C. startup thinks it can help

DURHAM — After giving birth to her second child, Emily Behr thought long and hard about how she was going to raise her daughters.

The childhood of her children, ages 2 and 4, was shaping up to be completely different from the one she had. Everywhere she looked, she saw research that showed kids are growing up more anxious than ever — faced with ever-growing pressures to excel both academically and socially.

So she turned to what had always worked for her: yoga and mindfulness.

Those two practices had brought calm to her world, but they were seen as a pursuit for adults more than children. She asked herself: Why couldn’t we teach kids how to deal with stress through body-and-mind exercises before pressures begin to accumulate in their lives?

“I wanted to equip my kids with tools while they are really young,” Behr, a trained yoga instructor, told The News & Observer. “By the time they start facing these pressures and these larger emotions, they could have tools to be able to cope with them.”

To do that, Behr founded Growga, a yoga and mindfulness training startup that is expanding quickly throughout the Triangle, bringing training and lessons to schools, offices, community centers and gyms.

It is aimed at children, offering classes for age groups as young as 2 years old to teenagers but will also incorporate lessons with parents. It also now offers programs for adults, with programs for workplace classes in place.

The lessons, which she said our backed by research- and evidence-based techniques, walk through yoga poses that children can easily conquer and work on mindfulness techniques to block out distractions and improve focus. For the youngest children, these techniques are taught through the lens of fun games. With the older kids, they can be more explicit about how to use them for tranquility.

Facing anxiety

Kids “need a preventative remedy” to combat anxiety, Behr said, and parents are searching for ways to help their children navigate their emotions.

“The onset for anxiety these days begins at 6,” Behr said. She quickly spoke of a laundry list of issues that kids face these days: like an increased pressure on grade averages in school to being bombarded by messages of comparison on social media.

“With technology the way it is, you can’t leave the social pressure behind like you used to,” Behr said. “If you didn’t get invited to a party decades ago, you would just go home and forget about it. Now you see pics on social media and you are bombarded with it. It has been amplified by technology.”

“That paired with the pressure to perform constantly academically and socially,” she added, “I think kids are crumbling under that pressure.”

Several studies back up Behr’s claim. The American College Health Association reported that 62% of undergraduates in 2016 felt “overwhelming anxiety,” up from 50% in 2011, The New York Times reported. A study by the University of California, Los Angeles reported that in 1985, 18% of first year students “felt overwhelmed” and in 2016, 41% felt that way.

The National Survey of Children’s Health for ages 6 to 17 similarly found a 20% increase in diagnoses of anxiety between 2007 and 2012, according to The Washington Post.

Behr started Growga, in part, because of her own issues with anxiety.

“I was dealing with some postpartum depression and some anxieties, and it threw me for a loop,” she said. “I had a great community around me, but I couldn’t find that professionally.

“I really became passionate about how can I share what yoga did for me and my life with my daughters.”

Linsey Matthews, of Pittsboro, said she started going to Growga classes about a year ago because wanted to share the benefits of yoga with her 3-year-old son Rhys.

“Yoga has been a huge benefit for me from an awareness and mindfulness perspective,” Matthews said. “And I wanted those things for my son. Especially as a toddler, they have a lot of big emotions. Learning through those fun activities has helped him regulate those feelings he wouldn’t have known what to do with.”

She noted that when Rhys starts to get upset or have tantrums now, she will tell him to start taking deep breaths, like he did when he was doing Growga. “He will do yoga breaths and it calms him down pretty effectively,” she said.


Behr thinks she has a chance expand Growga beyond the Triangle, through technology and different partnerships. The company isn’t a yoga studio, she said — rather she views it as a “one stop shop” for all-ages programming, serving businesses and customers where they are — whether that happens to be a gym, a school or an office building.

On the partnership side, she has seen growth working with clients, like O2 Fitness and the YMCAs, two gyms that wanted to boost their offerings to kids. But it’s not just gyms that are interested. Tanger Outlets asked Growga to create a class that would draw mothers and their children to its shopping center in Mebane, and several companies have asked a teacher to visit their offices.

Behr recently got accepted to join two local startup accelerators — Launch Chapel Hill and the NC IDEA Labs in Durham. She’s interested in potentially raising money to fund the company’s expansion, so she wanted to fine tune her business model as much as possible.

She said the company will expand operations to Charlotte, Charleston and Wilmington in early 2020.

“(Growga) had all the things we look for,” said Amy Linnane, director of Launch Chapel Hill. “An open, coachable founder, traction in the market and huge growth potential in the area — both the vertical and our physical area.”

Behr hopes to use an app or her website to train new teachers in different markets as well as share digital content for new lessons and routines. That could make it less dependent on Behr’s presence in other markets and potentially help with managing the schedules of the company’s teachers.

Connecting teachers to opportunities is one of the biggest advantages of her model, Behr said.

“The yoga industry is extremely saturated — over 1,100 certified yoga teachers in the Triangle alone — and it is tough to make it work on your own,” she said. “We provide support to those teachers looking to make an impact on their communities by training, mentoring and placing them into opportunities so they can focus on what really matters — being the best teachers they can be.”

She has 21 employees, including 17 instructors and two community ambassadors, who help manage the company’s 17 partnerships. Growga is still trying to fill several positions, but a little more than a year and a half ago, Behr was the only teacher.

She’d also like to hire more trainers who can speak languages like Spanish, as she sees some demand for classes in other languages.

Calm down

Earlier this month, Behr went to the Global Scholars Academy in Durham to teach a class to third graders. In the school’s gym, she walked the children, ages 8 to 10, through how to do certain poses and how to calm down through breathing exercises.

After the class, Deriana Ingram, a third grader, gave a big smile when asked how yoga made her feel.

“The feeling of doing yoga is to calm down when you have madness, angriness, furiousness,” Deriana said. “When I am furious, mad or angry, I always practice yoga.”

Her classmate, 8-year-old Heidi Corbitt agreed, adding it helps her clear her mind from troubles.

“Yoga has helped me because all the stuff that I have been through is still in my mind, and when I do yoga, it helps me forget everything that I have been going through,” she said. “Once I do yoga and go back to class, it helps me get focused.”

An interesting article in today's newspaper

Detective fired: Three rape victims say he made inappropriate advances via social media. Page A5

Guilford's elections board needs to pick a voting machine — soon

GREENSBORO — County election officials have a big decision to make Tuesday on a multimillion dollar question that will affect voters for years to come.

The Guilford County Board of Elections has twice postponed deciding which voting system to deploy in replacing equipment no longer certified for use in North Carolina after Dec. 1.

Elections director Charlie Collicutt said last week that he will be comfortable working with whatever choice board members make in their scheduled meeting Tuesday afternoon — but time is growing short.

“We’re still in flux over what we’re going to do,” he said.

Rough cost estimates range up to $8 million to supplant Guilford’s current 1,400 touchscreen voting terminals.

Elections board members are hoping that state officials scheduled to meet earlier Tuesday will provide additional guidance for how to proceed, chairman Horace “Jim” Kimel said.

Kimel didn’t want to speculate on which of the three voting-system vendors recently approved by state officials ranks as the board’s favorite.

“I don’t think there is any vendor we’re looking at any harder than another,” Kimel said.

Collicutt said that getting a new system in place for the May primaries will be a race against the clock that includes such tasks as buying and testing new equipment, getting rid of current voting machines to free up scarce warehouse space and training his staff on the nuances of the new machinery.

He said the time crunch marks the last phase of a process that began six years ago when state legislators sought to increase election accuracy and boost public confidence in the results by eliminating systems that don’t produce a paper record voters can review as they vote.

Roughly 75 counties in North Carolina already had equipment meeting those conditions. Guilford was among those that did not, using touchscreen computer technology known as “direct-record electronic” voting.

Since shortly after the new law was adopted in 2013, Collicutt and his counterparts in other counties have been urging the state Board of Elections to approve one or more voting systems that meet all the new criteria.

State officials finally moved in late August to approve systems marketed by Guilford’s current vendor and supplier of voting equipment statewide — Elections Systems & Software — as well as two other companies, Clear Ballot and Hart InterCivic.

But the state elections board stirred up an electoral tempest by authorizing systems that use hand-marked ballots and another format offered by Elections Systems & Software that relies on a computer touchscreen to mark the paper ballot.

With Elections Systems & Software’s ExpressVote, voters use a computer terminal to digitally fill out a ballot card that prints their choices both in writing and in bar codes. Voters can review the printed part of the ballot for accuracy before feeding it into another machine that counts each vote.

If voters check the printed ballot and find an error, they return it to precinct officials who void the ballot and give them a new one to complete.

Critics contend that the ExpressVote system’s use of bar codes makes it vulnerable to election fraud, fails to fulfill legislators’ goal of boosting voter confidence and renders it impossible to audit the results with any level of precision.

The systems under consideration by Clear Ballot and Hart InterCivic count votes with the same type of tabulators ExpressVote employs. But voters also wield a pen to hand-mark each of their selections on a paper ballot in a traditional multiple-choice format.

In addition to its ExpressVote technology, Elections Systems & Software offers a hand-marked option using pens that the local board also could adopt. Elections Systems & Software has been Guilford’s sole vendor of voting machines since 2006.

On a 4-1 vote last week, the local board postponed further consideration of its options for new equipment until Tuesday, presumably after the state board has met and provided whatever additional clarity it can.

Meanwhile, the state Board of Elections’ certification also has come under fire from the state NAACP. The civil rights group held an emergency meeting in Greensboro two weeks ago at which election experts said the latest systems are vulnerable to hacking and other forms of manipulation, especially given their reliance on bar coding.

In Raleigh, election officials reject assertions they have put their stamp of approval on equipment that could be classified as risky or unproven.

“Each of the three systems recently certified in North Carolina have been certified, tested, used and audited in many other states,” said Patrick Gannon, spokesman for the state Board of Elections.

Gannon also rebuffed claims that any of the newly authorized systems would leave the state vulnerable to computer hacking, citing the recent Mueller report’s finding that “no non-Internet connected election system was penetrated in the 2016 election.”

“As required by law, none of the systems certified in North Carolina are connected to the Internet,” Gannon said.

He said that at the state elections board’s meeting on Tuesday morning, staff will present a report answering in detail questions about the recent certification process.

Elections Systems & Software spokeswoman Katina Granger said in an email that all the company’s voting equipment “contains robust security and encryption features that safeguard the vote.”