Benefield: Need an immediate pick-me-up? Call this number to hear advice from Healdsburg students
On Tuesday night I got a text, urging me, in no uncertain terms, to call the following phone number: 707-998-8410.
Trusting the sender, I did. Immediately.
On the other end of the line was a recorded message created by kids offering a bounty of options:
“If you are feeling mad, frustrated or nervous, press 1. If you need words of encouragement or life advice, press 2. If you need a pep talk from kindergartners, press 3. If you need to hear kids laughing with delight, press 4. For encouragement in Spanish, press 5.”
Obviously, I pressed 2.
And for nearly a minute, kids I have never met offered both profound and whimsical advice. Each in their own voice.
Be grateful for yourself.
The world is a better place with you in it.
Try it again.
Bro, you are looking great.
So I kept listening, kept pushing numbers on my phone and kept hearing kids essentially telling me to hang in there.
You can always go to your bedroom, punch your pillow or cry on it and just go scream outside.
Feeling ticked off?
If you are mad or frustrated you can do what you want to do best or you can do flips on the trampoline.
If you are nervous, go get your wallet and spend it on ice cream and shoes.
I felt heard. All thanks to Jessica Martin and the students at West Side School in Healdsburg and their “PepToc” hotline.
‘There is hope for you’
The hotline project to bring light and a lift to others started with something simpler: paper flyers.
Martin, the lead teaching artist at West Side School in Healdsburg, worked with guest artist Asherah Weiss to come up with a project that would allow kids to dole out advice and hopeful thoughts in these trying times via printed words on posters around town.
Some of the flyers look like those you see advertising rooms for rent or landscaping services being offered — the kind where vertical tabs are cut at the bottom and passersby can pull the tab and take the phone number with them.
Every student made a flyer of their own, with their own message of encouragement and resilience.
“One said, ‘There is hope for you. Take one,’ and they wrote ‘HOPE’ on it,” Martin said.
One said, “If you are angry, take three deep breaths’ and the tabs say ‘Take three deep breaths,’” she said.
The prompt was simple, Weiss said.
“We asked them ‘What would you want to hear from someone when you are feeling down?’ or ‘What could you say to someone else if they are needing a little bit of encouragement?’” she said.
The advice ranged from things like keep your head up to take a turn on the trampoline.
“We need this right now,” Weiss said.
Years of wildfires, the pandemic, and now Russia’s attack on Ukraine — the world feels heavy.
“There is so much to be upset about,” she said. “But to come back to this really basic feeling that there are children who have words that can really make an impact. These children actually have some skills, they are going to be OK, they are giving us some words of wisdom.”
From the flyers was borne the idea of trying a different way to connect with people. Same messages, different approach.
Martin knew what she wanted to try.
“I have a personal obsession with hotlines,” Martin said.
She recalled the “Callin’ Oates” hotline launched a decade ago in which callers could press 1 to hear Hall & Oates’ hit “One on One,” or 2 to hear “Rich Girl” …
Martin asked around. Who wanted to record their voice sharing a bit of advice? About 80 kids said yes.
She recorded kids with her phone. Super low-tech.
The option to hear kindergartners laughing? That sound came courtesy of Martin hitting the record button on her phone as teacher James Greenwald, with a hand puppet made out of paper, pretended to chomp at his students.
“He had them laughing right away,” Martin said.
If you need to hear that (and, trust me, you do), press 4.
‘I need a pep talk’
The hotline is a potent combination of connection and reach.
Anyone, in any corner of the globe, can call the hotline, giving this piece of the project quite a bit more reach than the flyers.
But with that reach comes the intimate feeling of hearing someone’s voice on the other end of the line.
And that, in turn, brings with it a vulnerability and even risk. What happens when you dial the number? Is a real person on the line? What will be asked of me?
“It’s taking a personal risk,” Martin said. “You are not as anonymous making a phone call. … We have to make ourselves vulnerable to make that call.”
Thankfully, the reward is immediate.
Callers are asked by a young voice if they want to hear students “laughing in delight,” or maybe a message in Spanish?
Principal Rima Meechan is around her students all day long. She hears their voices, hears their laughter.
But on Wednesday, she, too, dialed the number.
“I was working in my office and thought, ‘You know what? I need a pep talk,’” she said. “It said, ‘You are OK for who you are,’ and I’m like ‘Yeah I am.’”
‘You are OK’
We’ve all — hopefully — been told we are liked just as we are or that it’s OK to be different, but to hear those words from a child has startling emotional impact, it turns out.
“From the voice of a child it is so uplifting and really touching, I think,” Weiss said.
The need is stunningly clear.
The hotline launched Saturday. In the first three days, callers maxed out the number of minutes Martin paid for through the West Side School arts program.
On Wednesday afternoon the hotline got 800 calls. In one hour. By Thursday, the line had temporarily shut down, the demand was so high.
Martin scrambled to augment the payments to keep the hotline afloat.
“I had thought, ‘We’ll be lucky if 100 people call,’” she said.
She has since updated the options on the hotline to include a way to donate to keep it going.
That said, the response is telling, Martin said.
“We desperately need to hear this,” she said. “Everyone is carrying around a tremendous amount of grief from the last few years from losing the world that we thought we knew.”
And kids are, too. Which is likely why they know the words to say.
The kid who told me Tuesday night I might feel buoyed by a doughnut? He was right.
And the ones who said “You are OK” and to “be nice”? They were right, too.
Sometimes it’s just nice to hear it.
You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @benefield.
Columnist, The Press Democrat
Have a story that is wild, wacky, bizarre or beautiful? Tell me about it. Have a question that starts with, “What’s the deal with…?” Let’s figure it out together. This column is about the story behind the story, a place to shine a light on who we are, what makes us a community and all of the things that make us special. With your help, I'll be tackling the questions that vex us: (the funny, the mundane, and the irritating.)