'We can be the helpers': Baltimore kids have inspiring reactions to protests

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/ Source: TODAY Contributor
By Terri Peters

My 6-year-old’s class field trip into Baltimore got canceled this week. “Kids on the bus told me there are criminals blowing up buildings there,” he told me. “Are we going to be able to go there anymore?”

We live in the suburbs now, but Baltimore has a big place in our hearts. It’s the city where my husband and I fell in love, built our first home together and had both of our babies. My memories of being a new mom are of pushing my stroller around the city and Inner Harbor, attending story time at the public library and meeting friends for play dates in the park.

Andrea Dressel, a mom from Severn, a suburb of Baltimore, and son Ben, 7, delivered snacks and bottled water to fire fighters helping with the efforts in the city as a way to thank them for their service during the riots.Andrea Dressel

So despite the chaos and confusion related to this week’s protests, and despite the anger of many and the potential for danger, my answer to my son was: Yes, we can still go into the city, just like we always have.

I explained to him that the police might have hurt a man who didn’t deserve it, even if he had committed a crime. I told him people are angry about this and that they are making some poor decisions because they want someone to listen to them and help them. I told him that sometimes things are just a big mess.

But I added that while Baltimore is a city where people are hurt and frustrated, it’s also a place where people are standing up to be the helpers, just like Mister Rogers talks about.

Anita Pilch and her two kids, Eamon, 11, and Eva, 9, helped clean-up of looted stores this week in Fells Point, Baltimore.Anita Pilch / Anita Pilch

It’s hard to know what to say when a crisis like this hits so close to home, but many families here are having honest discussions with their children about what it all means, as well as turning their words into action by helping their community.

Claudia Towles and her husband Tom are both residents and small business owners in the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore. Towels says it was difficult for their son, Sebastian, 14, to understand the recent developments in his hometown, but that they did their best to ease his fears.

“He kept asking, ‘Why would they destroy our city? Why would they do this?’ I told him out of a situation like this, there are always people who are helping and you’ve got to look for those people who are being a part of the solution, not the problem.” said Towles. “I said, ‘Whatever’s going to happen will happen and all we can do is calm the fears and show that we’re more than what’s shown on TV.’ Not to say that what’s being shown on TV isn’t real – it’s real – but it’s not the only story that Baltimore has to tell.”

Sisters Shamira, 18, and Shakeema, 14, Johnson joined members of their community to clean up a section of West Pratt Street, blocks down from the location of a fire started by rioters.Catalina Dansberger Duque / Catalina Dansberger Duque

Towles, whose toyshop, Amuse, was spared from vandalism during the riots, and friend Elizabeth Laverick started an online community, BeMore Baltimore, on Facebook on Monday evening. The community quickly grew to thousands, and has become a place to post needs within the city, as well as to tell stories of the good things happening in the aftermath of the riots.

“It’s been a way to show my son that out of people feeling helpless, positive things are happening, too—neighbors helping neighbors, business owners helping business owners. We don’t have to feel like we are without action. If you can pack a lunch for someone who is volunteering or helping with law and order, or help with a cleanup, participating in the positive is what will bring a solution,” Towles told TODAY Parents.

Melanie Hood-Wilson, of Fells Point, said she spent Monday afternoon with her husband and 12 year old son following reports of the protests on Twitter and watching the TV coverage.

Hood-Wilson says her 16 year old daughter, Maya, didn’t initially want to discuss the situation. But on Wednesday during school, Maya texted her mom to ask if she go to a protest, and Hood-Wilson says she wasn’t sure. But she reconsidered.

“I said yes with explicit instructions to walk two blocks away and call me if she got even the slightest idea that the crowd was getting rowdy or that people were participating in unsafe behavior,” she said.

“I have raised her to make her voice heard and to care about what is going on in the world around her,” said Hood-Wilson. “The protest ended up being an experience that moved her greatly and I am proud of her involvement in making the youth voice heard in our city in a constructive way.”

Bolton Hill mom Elizabeth Kennedy took her three kids, ages 7, 4 and 2, to demonstrations in support of Freddie Gray, and also to cleanup efforts yesterday in West Baltimore.

Elizabeth Kennedy's son, Miles Vitek, 4, participated in a cleanup in West Baltimore this week. Kennedy also participated in three peaceful marches and demonstrations for Freddie Gray with her three kids, ages 7, 4 and 2.Elizabeth Kennedy

“My daughter goes to an elementary school that is 99 percent African American, and many of her friends have, by kindergarten, had interactions with the police that are radically different than from the experiences my kids have,” Kennedy said. “So, in that way, our conversations about this issue have been very much rooted in conversations with their peers, from their personal experiences, which have often been heartbreaking and illuminating. Four year olds get the difference between right and wrong; it's the adults who often struggle to remember.

Lindsey Culli, a mom who lives in the Butcher’s Hill section of the city, says she struggled with how to explain to daughter, Carly, 5, what was happening and why she didn’t have school due to the riots.

Carly Culli, 5, pushes her baby brother, Calvin, through Target as she and her mom, Lindsey, shop for food to deliver to first-responders, national guardsmen and school-aged children in Baltimore.Lindsey Culli / Lindsey Culli

“We focused a lot of our discussion on how much we all love Baltimore, but how there are some of our friends and loved ones who feel hurt right now. And then, we talked about Mister Rogers’ advice to ‘look for the helpers,” said Culli. “After a while, she thought about it and said, ‘But we don’t just have to look for the helpers, right mom? We can be the helpers.’”

Carly and baby brother Calvin helped by putting together bagged meals for first responders, national guardsmen and school-aged children who, because there was no school, may have gone without food.

With the help of friends, Baltimore mom Mikey Monaghan and her kids Mckenna, 10, and Dylan, 13, made up bags stuffed with bottled water and snacks for police and firefighters. " I wanted them to be a part of something good in all of this tragedy for our city," said Monaghan.Mikey Monaghan / Mikey Monaghan

Staceyann Chin is a poet, author and activist who has not only protested for human rights issues herself, but also has involved her daughter, Zuri, 3, in the process, even filming Living Room Protest videos with Zuri to help her process her thoughts on things like police brutality and her own autonomy.

Chin says that, when talking to kids about incidents like the riots in Baltimore, it’s important to speak on their level, use analogies, and keep concepts simple.

“Bad things happen to people everywhere. I try to talk to her in words a three-year-old can understand, said Chin. “You don't hide. You don't lie. You use analogies – words they can understand. But I never lie to my kid. Even for hard things, I admit the difficulty and I remind her that even when something is hard, or hurts, or makes you feel like you can't do it—you get help.”

Elliesofia Dansberger Duque, 3, helps volunteers clean up a West Baltimore neighborhood vandalized during the riots. "I took my daughter because it was important for our family to help clean up; kindness can't just be talked about it must be done," said mom Catalina Dansberger Duque.Catalina Dansberger Duque. / Catalina Dansberger Duque.

Chin believes that teaching your child to get involved is a vital part of helping them to understand. And, the New York City mom says that involvement leads to experiences that help kids find their own voice, their own beliefs, and their own way.

“Some people might have fights. We might disagree, but I tell her it is her right to say when she doesn’t agree with something, and if someone is being victim to another person's action—if they are being hurt— it is our duty to step up and help. If we all practiced being fair, or taking care of each other, or taking turns, the whole world would be a nicer place.”