When John Armour died suddenly this past February, his widow, Shelley Ransom of Bend, sought grief counseling within days of her husband’s funeral for her daughters, Josie, 10 and Zoe, 8. The counselor, suggested the children watch a video, Children and Grief, produced by Bend-based Professor Child, LLC.
“Our lives were very raw and surreal,” says Ransom. “The video provided the first opportunity for the girls to cry by themselves, and it opened a flood gate of emotions. It made us take time to acknowledge that there’s a big hole in our hearts, and that’s good. You can’t heal until you acknowledge that there’s something to heal.”
Kids talking to other kids about difficult situations they’ve faced in their own lives, including the death of a loved one, divorce, parents away for military service or living with a sibling with autism spectrum disorder–that’s the idea behind a series of award-winning videos produced by Professor Child, a partnership created in 2010 by three Bend moms who wanted to help children struggling with these issues.
One of the women, Jenni O’Keefe, lost a nephew and saw firsthand the sadness of his surviving sibling. “I wanted to figure out a way to let my niece know that she was going to be OK, that others have gone through it.”
O’Keefe approached two friends, Rory Kidder and Sharon Richards, about starting a business that would support kids experiencing challenging life events. “We didn’t know what we were doing, but we knew we wanted to do a grief project,” Kidder says.
The women decided that the most powerful tool would be documentary-style videos of real kids telling their personal stories. The group adopted the unique approach of letting the kids do all the talking – no narration or background by adults – thus the name, Professor Child.
Each partner brought a different perspective to the endeavor. Richards is a practicing adult and child mental health therapist; Kidder was a former elementary teacher; and O’Keefe had worked in marketing, advertising and public relations. The only significant hurdle (aside from the lack of capital) was none had any filmmaking experience. So they reached out to Bend filmmaker, Wes Coughlin.
“I liked the idea of coming out with a digital product that can be easily distributed to schools and families,” he says. He shot the first two videos–Children and Grief and Children of Military Families–and worked alongside the team to edit those two and a third, Children and Divorce.
“It was challenging at first because we had no experience, no credibility, and we had to find kids willing to participate,” O’Keefe says. For the grief video, the group turned to Partners in Care, a local organization that supports families, offering hospice and other services. It helped Professor Child locate children working through grief and willing to be interviewed on video. For the DVD on divorce, the women had no shortage of children willing to share this common experience.
With her education background, Kidder developed a curriculum for each topic, and Richards conducted the interviews. “Sharon can pull stories out of kids without making them feel intimidated,” Kidder says. When filming began, she says, “We focused on making it the kids’ special day and told them that it’s all about them, that it’s their chance to shine.” While each awaited his or her turn with the filmmaker, Rob Kerr, a Bend photographer, took still shots of the kids, which were later incorporated into the videos.
The original films were cut into a single 45-minute DVD; however, they are now sold as 15-minute segments, each with a CD-ROM workbook. Professor Child recently signed a contract with San Francisco-based Cerebellum Corp., a producer and distributor of educational DVDs to schools, libraries and consumers nationally. The new agreement allows Professor Child’s partners to focus exclusively on research and production of new film topics and curriculum.
The one-of-a-kind videos have attracted national acclaim and won awards from Creative Child Magazine and the American Library Association. With each film production, Kidder says they’re all “amazed at how much we learn from the kids.” Despite the heavy subject matter, the DVDs leave viewers with a sense of hope and an understanding that they are not alone.
The women are ready to take Professor Child to the next step and aim to produce three or four films a year. Their newest projects for release in 2016 are a film about the transition from elementary to middle school and, in a departure from video, an audio CD with guided meditations for children, recorded in kid voices, of course.
This article was published with permission from Cascade Journal. It was originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Cascade Journal. Article written by Lee Lewis Husk