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Bronzeville, Near South Side

With Once Upon A Time Capsule, Kids Learn How To Talk About How The Pandemic Affects Them

Using words and pictures, the Once Upon A Time Capsule project allows children to share their feelings.

A young boy participates in a Once Upon A Time Capsule/Juneteenth event at DuSable Museum.
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SOUTH LOOP — Though COVID-19 has been dominating conversations across the globe, children are rarely giving them the opportunity to express themselves.

One local organization, Once Upon A Time Capsule, is helping kids find their voice.

More than 35 youth-related groups across the city collaborated on time capsule projects with children ages 5 to 12, the majority of them kids of color. Earlier this month, several kids participated in a time capsule event at the Adler Planetarium, where they put pen to paper to share their thoughts and feelings about the tumultuous year.

Once Upon A Time Capsule co-founder Stacey Gillett and her partner, Stephanie Hodges, spent the past year talking with pediatric psychologists for guidance on how to give kids awareness of all the complexity they’ve navigated since the start of the pandemic.

“These are predominantly time capsules of stories and memories, and this is a way of elevating them,” Gillett said.

For Edward Cheng, his wife and his three children — Lily, 12; Maddie, 11; and Nate, 9 — the past 18 months have been filled with Zoom calls, Google Classroom links, music practice and fights over the television remote. While the Chengs have talked to each other about COVID-19, the kids said they hadn’t explored their feelings until the project.

The past year “was scary. It seemed like everything was getting worse as it was getting better,” said Lily, who learned about the time capsule while in camp at Northerly Island. “At home, we weren’t really talking about it. We were coping.”

The Cheng siblings — Nate(l), Maddie(c) and Lily, who participated in a Once Upon A Time Capsule event at the Adler Planetarium earlier this month.

Trying to keep a diary wasn’t working for the family; life seemed too hectic to chronicle, and with everyone sharing the same space, just getting through the day was an achievement in and of itself, they said.

Writing down their feelings made the Cheng children realize that they weren’t alone and what they are feeling is normal.

“I felt fine with sharing because I felt other people could relate to it,” Maddie said. “When I did the project, I thought about how so much has happened in so little time.”

The submissions from the Cheng siblings will be part of a larger citywide sealing event this fall. After that, the time capsule will take a brief trip into space as part of the Far Horizons program.

Upon its return, the sealed submissions will be stashed at partner organizations around the city for five years, to be opened in 2026.

“A child’s mind only has so much memory, and for them to look back five years later would really be meaningful for them,” Gillett said. “I think for all of us, this will be still be very fresh and very new, given what a portion of this is in their overall lives. Five years will allow them to feel like they’re coming at it from a new perspective.”

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