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Benefield: What we can learn from massive response to Healdsburg kids’ PepToc hotline

A Healdsburg school’s “PepToc” is a worldwide sensation with more than 4.3 million calls so far.|

How you can help

Need a few words of encouragement or advice on how to deal with a jumble of emotions, courtesy of elementary students at West Side School in Healdsburg? Try calling 707-998-8410.

To support the PepToc hotline: gofund.me/52bf0d87

To support arts enrichment at West Side School: www.westsideusd.org

The fact that people have dialed a telephone hotline more than 4.3 million times to hear elementary-school children speak words of encouragement and wisdom tells artist and teacher Jessica Martin a lot.

It tells her that children are caring and joyous and their voices should be heard.

It tells her the world is hurting and the sound of kindergartners laughing is an unbelievable balm for all kinds of woe.

And it tells her, in no uncertain terms, that art — in all of its wonderful, varied and magical forms — should be lifted, celebrated and funded in schools.

“If this isn’t reason to deeply fund the arts in schools in our country, I don’t know what is,” said Martin, the lead teaching artist at West Side School in Healdsburg.

‘Why did this go viral?’

The “this” to which Martin refers is PepToc, a telephone hotline that was launched barely four weeks ago with the expectation that West Side School parents, teachers and perhaps a grandmother or two, might dial in and give a listen.

The instructions to kids were simple: Think of words of encouragement that have helped you, or words of advice that were meaningful, and let Martin record your voice.

The instructions to callers were even more simple: Just dial 707-998-8410.

From there, a sweet voice welcomes callers to the hotline, offering a number of options: Feeling mad or frustrated? Press 1. Need life advice? Press 2. Need a pep talk from kindergartners? Press 3.

I’m not naming names, but some people call and press all the buttons.

The hotline exploded.

So great was the need, the hotline actually collapsed under the pressure more than once.

Martin was up in the middle of the night pumping more funds into the program to keep the line afloat. She added an option for folks to donate to keep it, and other West Side School arts programs, running.

Turns out people were aching, and I mean aching, to hear the kids tell them “the world is a better place with you in it” and that “you can do it” and that if you are feeling down ice cream sometimes helps.

Last week, the little project Martin had said she originally hoped would pull in 100 calls was getting 60,000 calls an hour.

“In an hour,” Martin says slowly. “An hour.”

Granted, that number spikes whenever PepToc gets high-profile news coverage or a social media shoutout, but it is still an almost unfathomable number.

“I feel like we launched it when the world broke,” she said. “I feel like the war in Ukraine was the last straw for everybody.”

And with that, Martin sees the hotline as almost a tale of two deeply held feelings.

“I go between immense pride in our children and deep joy for them because they are seeing firsthand that it’s very easy to make a difference in the world,” she said. “But I’m also holding the side of, ‘Why did this go viral?’

“We are holding so much grief and despair.”

‘Uplifting the world’

Martin, who led the project with the help of guest artist Asherah Weiss, has hardly come up for air.

We had a standing date to talk Monday. It was a check-in of sorts after my first column on the hotline ran on March 3.

Also on Martin’s press docket Monday? Telemundo and a Dutch press group.

Since early March, the story of the hotline has been told on NPR, CNN, “CBS Sunday Morning,” “The Drew Barrymore Show,” “Good Morning America” and “The Daily Show.” Stories have run in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian and USA Today.

Add to that local and national radio and TV networks and social media, well, it’s the definition of going viral.

“It’s definitely been very life-altering and all-consuming,” Martin said.

The popularity of the hotline has spurred about $85,000 in donations, Martin said.

That’s the same amount the school typically allots for all of its enrichment programs — arts, music, garden — a pot of money that was slashed by 75% this year, Martin said.

The garden program stayed, but all other programs made due with a total of $20,000 to fund what Martin described as “occasional visiting artists workshops” and also includes Martin’s work with the students. Including the hotline.

The need is so clear, it’s hard to come to terms with arts being considered “an extra” and among the first things to go when budgetary times are tight.

So Martin wants more.

From all of us. For all of us.

She’s been recording new messages from students so there are fresh options on the hotline. She started an Instagram account so followers will see something positive on their feed every once in a while.

View this profile on Instagram

Peptoc (@peptockids) • Instagram photos and videos

She’s also fielded calls from other artists and other teachers asking how they can tap into the same energy.

She’s here for it.

“We want to expand on the idea of PepToc, give a call-out for a worldwide art project that involves empathy and children,” she said.

What does that look like?

Martin isn’t sure, but the wheels are turning. Fast.

She envisions public schools partnering with local artists, getting sponsors and launching their own uplifting projects. She sees a place where classrooms and campuses across the globe could share their projects in one place.

She called it a “compendium of different ideas for uplifting the world.”

“Maybe people will want to do chalk messages on the sidewalk or musical performances. The sky is the limit,” she said. “We want to just keep it easy. Hopefully we will get that platform together and keeping riding the wave, keep the momentum going.”

Brought to tears

Why keep going?

Because Martin and others at West Side have been flooded with responses. The kind of responses that saw Martin walk into the school’s main office one day to find the office manager in tears.

She had just been on the phone with someone who runs an elder care facility in the Midwest thanking the school for the project.

“She said, ‘I have not heard laughter like that in this facility ever,’” Martin said.

Or the email Martin received from a woman worried the hotline, briefly down because of call volume, would not return.

“She said, ‘I depend on this and listen to it when I get my chemo treatment,’” she said.

Or the letter, sent from a hospital on the East Coast and signed by every nurse on staff, thanking students for the hotline.

‘Artists are problem solvers’

Martin sees and feels the answer to the “why keep going” question every day.

It’s the how that is less clear. But that’s not exactly right. Martin knows how, she’s just a little puzzled as to why it’s so hard for some others to see.

“The arts need to be front and center and used as a tool for learning,” she said. “The arts have been undervalued and ignored for generations in our country.”

Art, as PepToc proves, is not limited to watercolor and murals.

And Martin is emphatic here: The arts are not extras, not add-ons to the day, things we dabble in when we have time.

“We need to expand the definition of art and the role it plays in society,” she said.

“Artists are problem solvers. I really do think our inherent creativity will save us, and this is just one example of that.”

If you don’t believe Martin, ask the kids.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

How you can help

Need a few words of encouragement or advice on how to deal with a jumble of emotions, courtesy of elementary students at West Side School in Healdsburg? Try calling 707-998-8410.

To support the PepToc hotline: gofund.me/52bf0d87

To support arts enrichment at West Side School: www.westsideusd.org

Kerry 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.)

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