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In this 'children's book,' stepdad is a crack addict, big brother is in prison

“Welcome to My Neighborhood” is a children’s book not intended for children.

The round-eyed animal characters are deceptive in their familiarity, patterned after the young reader series that are most people’s first books. Except these cute kittens, mice and bunnies aren’t illustrating benign storylines.

A tiny mouse huddles by the couch, silently fearful of a crack-addicted stepfather. A little bunny despairs as one by one, her older brothers go to prison. And a kitten deceives his mother at dinnertime, pretending to be full because there isn’t enough food for everyone.

Give the book three minutes. That’s about how long it takes to read. The impact will linger much, much longer.

The stories are meant to be disturbing. They are true. The book is a pro bono project of the global digital advertising and marketing company VML.

Each of the vignettes is based on the journal writing of a Kansas City-area teenager in a little-publicized nonprofit program called Youth Ambassadors.

“If you can’t read that to your children, how can we allow them to live it?” said Paige O’Connor, who helped start the Ambassadors program in 2010 and now is its executive director.

Everyone needs to eat, but they can’t always afford to. Like my mommy.

From ‘Dinner Time’

Like the book, the Youth Ambassador program is basic in its structure and mission. It offers underserved teenagers a safe place for self expression through art and journal writing, along with teaching soft job skills. The group meets in three-hour Saturday sessions during the school year and for longer periods during the summer. The rest is up to the Youth Ambassadors.

The teenagers are their own best advocates. They just need to be heard.

‘The Good Man’

Kayla Colding Perez wrote the book’s first segment, “The Good Man,” when she was 17. She’s 21 now, married and the mother of twin boys.

Her story, as told from the perspective of a little girl, begins:

“I never understood what mommy considered a ‘good man.’ She had 5 children over the course of 7 years by 4 different men. Then she married someone she thought would be a ‘good man.’ He was a crack addict and constantly stole Christmas presents and birthday money.”

Looking back now, the poised and confident Colding Perez says she had no idea that her short journal entry could have an impact.

“I was just getting out feelings,” she said of her younger self.

She grew up in the Argentine area of Kansas City, Kan. A disciplined student, she excelled at Sumner Academy as a Kauffman Scholar before completing two years at the University of Kansas.

As the youngest child, she said that by the age of about 10 she was “too smart for her own good.”

Actually, she was merely perceptive in ways that adults like to pretend children are not. She began to question her mother’s choices, why the family was moving from house to house, why money was short.

The most difficult part for her was how life at home undercut the closeness between the siblings. “Once we all came of age, we just disappeared,” she said. “I had to get out and go to college.”

Youth Ambassadors gave her a sense of validation. “Before, there was never any reward for all of the things that I was doing,” Colding Perez said.

Her husband, Vincente Perez, was also a Youth Ambassador. He recently completed his undergrad degree at the University of Chicago (he plans to eventually earn a doctorate) and gives back to the Ambassadors as a civics/speech teacher.

Building resilience

Both attended when the program first began in 2010 with 20 students. Nearly 200 teenagers participated this summer, and about 70 attended sessions this past Saturday at two Kansas City locations. The teenagers are paid a minimum wage for their time. But like with any job, they can also be fired for not meeting the commitments.

Resiliency is a trait of many of the Youth Ambassadors. The program seeks to grow it. That’s also the tie-in with the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. The title of Tuesday’s event is Bouncing Back: Building a Resilient KC.

Each student who enters the program is given an assessment based on the ACE study for Adverse Childhood Experiences. A score of four or above is considered to be high by experts in the field of child trauma. Forty-two percent of the teenagers enrolled this past summer scored a four or above in the assessment. Many will be the first in their families to graduate high school.

Allowing the youth to recognize what is not the norm for a child’s life is a big part of the programming.

O’Connor and the other teachers are careful not to openly criticize the parents, often single mothers. Rather, they challenge the teenagers to focus on their own positive options.

They are encouraged to explore what a healthy relationship should look like. They are given lessons on managing stress and encouraged to think about their own coping skills. A session Saturday at DeLaSalle Education Center included a short video that explained the physiological changes that occur within the human body when it us under stress.

Journaling, writing on current topics as well as their own experiences, is a constant in the sessions.

“Welcome to My Neighborhood” is the second book that VML has produced for Youth Ambassadors. The first, “I’m Not No One,” was a compilation of journal entries, art and photography of the Ambassadors.

This second book, with artwork by Davey Gant, is a two-year project and will eventually include an animated short video. A grant from the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City helped publish the book.

The other two Ambassadors whose stories are told in “Welcome to My Neighborhood” are remaining anonymous. But both are doing well; one is a senior in a local high school, and the other is heading off to college soon.

“We wanted a really powerful way to get people to even begin to comprehend how rough these children’s lives are,” said Aaron Evanson, executive creative director at VML, of the book’s concept. VML initcially had to persuade the Youth Ambassador board to agree to the approach.

I have three big brothers. I love them very much, but they don’t always do the right thing.

From ‘My Big Brothers’

The first clue is the storybook’s cover. A broken liquor bottle and other trash lie at the feet of the illustrated animals, dancing together merry-go-round style. The power is in the simplicity. The stories are told with the tone and voice of a child living in difficult circumstances not of their own making.

The “Dinner Time” story begins: “Everyone needs to eat, but they can’t always afford to. Like my mommy.”

“My Big Brothers” features rabbits. It’s written from the journaling of a girl whose older brothers were sentenced to prison for murder and robbery.

“I have three big brothers. I love them very much, but they don’t always do the right thing.”

Because the medium is anthropomorphized animals, the approach also cuts through common race and class biases that can stymie honest conversation. Too often, the reaction to children living in poverty or dire circumstances is to focus criticism on the parents. But that might diminish empathy, much less offers of help, for the child.

That’s why the book is targeted at adults — policymakers, civic leaders and educators. It is not intended to wind up on a child’s bookshelf.

O’Connor said she literally has hundreds of Youth Ambassador writings that VML could have chosen from. Her focus, and the one she stresses for the youth, is that as teenagers, they can begin to understand their childhood experiences and move on.

“They are old enough now to take that power back,” she said. “They have the power to take control of their lives.”

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