A viral campaign is raising funds for a hotline… run by children… that shares uplifting advice and words of encouragement in troubling times.

We challenge anyone not to smile as they hear the words “We all really like you!”, yelled by a noisy group of enthusiastic children. 

With a 24-hour news cycle of war, natural disaster and climate change inaction, coupled with the COVID-normal juggle, teachers Jessica Martin and Asherah Weiss have recognised the infectiousness of childhood joy and humour and its power to uplift us, even in the most anxious and troubling of times. 

And they have decided to harness that power by setting up a hotline – called PepToc – where callers can choose from a number of options pre-recorded by (bilingual) youngsters at West Side Elementary school in Healdsburg, California.  

“If you’re feeling mad, frustrated or nervous, press 1. If you need words of encouragement and 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,” says a young voice upon connecting with the service.  

The hotline has been receiving up to 35,000 calls an hour and no wonder when messages include gems such as “If you’re nervous, go get your wallet and spend it on ice cream and shoes”, “If you’re feeling up high and unbalanced, think of groundhogs”, “If you’re sad or angry, go get a cookie” and “The world is a better place with you in it”.  

It was Jessica’s own six-year-old son who came up with the hotline’s name after she asked him to use his block letter toys to create a flyer for the service. Since then, she and Asherah have been recording messages in each classroom of the small school of 141 students who range from five to 11 years old. The pair have encouraged students to think of moments when they have felt frustrated or have received good advice or thought of something helpful on their own. “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,” says Jessica.  

The popularity of the service has surpassed the school’s wildest expectations and it is making a real impact. Patients at Baltimore’s John Hopkins Medical Center have been regularly calling the hotline, with one cancer patient calling during her treatments. The administrator of an Iowa aged care facility called to thank the school, sharing how much joy the hotline had brought the home’s elderly residents.  

An installation of the inspirational posters for the PepToc hotline at a youth art exhibit at Healdsburg Center for the Arts in California. Credit: Jessica Martin

The fundraising need  

With call numbers through the roof, the hosting cost of the phone line alongside the administration needed to manage the level of interest has far exceeded Jessica and Asherah’s initial expectations of what would be needed to keep the project alive. They are therefore calling for donations to the small rural school via a GoFundMe page and the Felta Education Foundation, an arm of the West Side School Parent Organization. $40,000 USD is the goal for the hotline and $85,000 is the overall target for the 2022/23 school year which, if reached, will support 100% donation-funded physical education, art and garden projects and the school’s beloved music and Spanish programs, which have both been casualties of COVID-related funding cuts.  

The GoFundMe page has raised $27,000 USD to date, with tax-deductible gifts ranging between $50 and $3000.   

Messages on the page include:  

The world needs this, especially now.” 

“Thank you! I was having a very rough day and this made me smile. You will never know how many lives this simple act of free kindness might save. Thank you again and again!” 

“You kids keep it up, you could save the world!!! Thank you!!!! 

This can be an effective way to combat some mental health issues even by lifting someone’s spirits for a minute. I know it completely made my entire day 

The phone line immediately brought me to tears. We need more art like this – people powered, encouraging, and practically thoughtful. 

This was so desperately what I needed. Thank you to the amazing artists for thinking of this project and the kindest students for their positive messages from the heart. 

The hotline has also been a media favourite, with more than 50 news pieces covering the story, and the teachers and school sharing the news on their own social media.  

Funds raised will be used to keep PepToc running 24-hours a day and the team hope to add a new option with rotating surprise per talks every one to two weeks. “Any excess funding we receive will go toward our enrichment programs, which are in desperate need of support,” says the GoFundMe page.  

And of course, the kids are delighted too: “They get to see that literally just one kind word can lift up millions,” says Jessica.  

PepToc is a brilliant example of connecting beneficiary to donor – raising funds and giving the warm and fuzzies in both directions. Sure, there is a fundraising lesson here, but if nothing else, we hope it has put a smile on your face.  

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