Image Source: https://www.theguardian.com/
Last month, a group of California elementary school students launched a free hotline featuring on-demand inspiration and advice for anxious souls. With joy in short supply these days, the tiny school’s project has since gone viral, receiving thousands of calls hourly.
Dial 707-998-8410* and you’ll hear a cheerful voice listing your options: “If you’re feeling mad, frustrated or nervous, press one. If you need words of encouragement and life advice, press two. If you need a pep talk from kindergarteners, press three. If you need to hear kids laughing with delight, press four.”
After reading the morning’s headlines, I tend to need all of the above, so I was eager to give it a try. It took several attempts to get past the busy signal, but it was well worth it. I was immediately transported back to the optimistic days of my youth and reminded that often life is less complicated than we make it. It was clear these students have quiet wisdom well beyond their years, as well as a true appreciation for ice cream. I won’t spoil things by revealing all their tips, but here are a few I took to heart:
- “If you’re nervous, go get your wallet and spend it on ice cream and shoes.”
- “If you’re frustrated, you can always go to your bedroom, punch a pillow or cry on it and just go scream outside.”
- “If you’re mad or frustrated, you can do what you want to do best or you can do flips on the trampoline.”
- “If you’re sad or angry, go get a cookie, a smoothie or an ice cream.”
Other pieces of advice could save you a great deal of money on therapy:
- “You are OK.”
- “Don’t give up – power through.”
- “The world is a better place with you in it.”
- “Choose weird.”
And finally, a cognitive-behavioral approach:
- “If you’re feeling up high and unbalanced, think of groundhogs.”
The project was envisioned by Jessica Martin and Asherah Weiss, who teach art at West Side Union elementary school in Healdsburg. “We wanted to do a project that was going to be simple enough to do and call on kids to think about what they wanted to say in the world, to uplift other people,” Weiss said. “And as we all know, we’ve been going through a lot these last few years. So we wanted to do something really simple but profound.”
They went to each classroom in the small school, whose 141 students range in age from kindergarten to sixth grade. They gave the kids a simple prompt. “We said: ‘It’s been a very rough few years. You kids are incredibly resilient. And you found all kinds of ways to stay joyful,’” Martin said. They encouraged the children to think of moments when they felt frustrated and they’d received good advice, or come up with something helpful on their own. “So all of the responses are really coming from the kids and their own life experience, and the advice they’ve gleaned over their short years on this planet.”
In crafting their advice, the students were keenly aware of the bleak backdrop: the war in Ukraine, local wildfires that have required yearly evacuations, and the seemingly endless pandemic. After more than a year of remote learning, the students were all too familiar with the isolation of Covid. “I experienced it – home schooling and quarantine,” said Natisse, a fifth-grader.
Rosalie, another fifth-grader, said it wasn’t hard to come up with ideas. “It’s good to say nice things to people,” she said. “So I’d say a lot of things come into your head.”
In Healdsburg, a northern California community of 12,000, the hotline was “a fun project that seemed like it was going to have kind of a small reach”, said Susie Dalton, the school’s fifth-grade teacher. “But it’s been amazing for everybody to see the impact it’s had on a larger scale.”
Students initially distributed cards and flyers announcing the project, dubbed Peptoc – which was how Martin’s son, a first-grader at the school, spelled “pep talk”. As word of mouth spread, the project went viral on social media and in the news.
Martin had signed up for the cheapest hotline provider she could find, thinking the kids would be excited to hear 100 people had called in a month, she said. “And then two days later, we’re getting 500 an hour, and now we’re getting 9,000 an hour.”
The positive response has been overwhelming. “We get people saying, ‘Oh, we’re so relieved to have the resource’ or ‘this made me cry so I sent it to all my friends,’” said Rosalie.
Martin said staff and patients at Johns Hopkins medical center had been regularly calling the hotline. Rima Meechan, the school’s principal and superintendent, heard from a woman with cancer who calls during her treatments. Weiss said she had seen the school’s office manager in tears on the phone with the administrator of an Iowa elder care facility, where most patients are over 90 years old. “She was calling to thank all of the kids, because she played it for everyone who was part of that facility, and she said: ‘I haven’t heard laughter like that from them in years.’”
Martin said she was “pretty thrilled” for the kids: “They get to see that literally just one kind word can lift up millions.”
The hotline, which will be updated with new messages in the coming months and is funded by donations, has also had an effect closer to home. James Greenwald, a kindergarten teacher who has taught at the school for 28 years, recently heard from an old friend who’d been facing some personal challenges. “Apparently he had called the hotline, and he texted me: ‘I just bought myself an ice cream.’”