Life's big questions: KidSpirit gives tweens, teens a place to discuss the spiritual and philosphical

Published: Friday, Oct. 26 2012 5:55 p.m. MDT

"One of the things that led me to follow this idea to create a spiritual magazine for youth is that I think a lot of kids are spiritual and feel a sense of the divine in their lives, but it's not expressed or supported," she said. "Adults may not ask them what is important to them and (what) really matters to them."

From a faith standpoint, Hochman is quite eclectic herself. She grew up Protestant and for two years attended a Catholic high school in Princeton, N.J. Her grandmother was a practicing Baha'i, and her husband is Jewish and a practicing Buddhist. For her spiritual fulfillment, she meditates and practices yoga.

"My faith tradition is very inclusive so I try to maintain a very open attitude toward people and their personal beliefs," she said.

She encourages the same from the 15-member editorial board and the vast number of contributors from around the world who are finding KidSpirit online. Two of those who took that advice to heart are Vidushi Sharma, a Hindu living in Secaucus, N.J., and Susanna Olson, a homeschooled evangelical Christian, living in a suburb of Charlotte, N.C.

Hochman asked them to talk to each other for an hour, write about it and submit their essays to Odyssey Networks, which was handling the State Department's 2012 Hours against Hate initiative designed to promote respect across lines of culture, religion, tradition, class and gender.

Both girls were anxious about the encounter. "I knew she was so different than me. My biggest concern was how are we going to maintain a conversation for an hour," recalls Olson, who is 16 years old. Sharma, a 17-year-old senior attending a public school, acknowledged she had apprehensions about relating to someone she assumed took religion more seriously than she did.

They hooked up over Skype and talked about their faith traditions, God, sin and free will — the things they were asked to discuss. "At one point, we stopped talking and just smiled," wrote Sharma in her essay about the experience. "She had blonde hair, mine was black. She prayed every day, I — almost never. But we both evinced a love of reading, travel, and discussion. We completed each other’s sentences about the smell of books, the thrill of an old library, the electric diversity of NYC. It was a genuinely meaningful conversation. I found a new way of relating to religion, but more importantly, a new friend."

Neither can remember exactly how long their conversation lasted — but it was well more than an hour. "We had a wonderful time together," Olson said. "It did open me to wanting to be with people who are not exactly like me."

Their essays were identified as among the best by Odyssey, which sent film crews to each of the girl's homes. Their experience will be aired on Odysseynetworks.org in early November.

Deep thinkers

Another experience Sharma and Olson have in common is how they discovered KidSpirit and the unique experience of working with peers. Both found the website while surfing the Internet looking for publishing outlets.

Hochman said that's a common reason for tapping into KidSpirit, especially for kids who are homeschooled or otherwise don't have a lot of opportunities to get published and receive feedback on their work.

And anyone writing for KidSpirit can expect a lot of feedback. The editorial board meets once a month in Hochman's living room to pore over submissions. Sitting on the floor, couches or chairs, the kids eat cookies while they read and mark the submissions up with their edits and suggestions to dig a little deeper here or clarify something there, along with compliments on what they like. Hochman then examines the editing, suggestions looking for consensus, and sends the piece back to the writer for revisions. One submission may go through two or three rewrites before publishing.

"They are really friendly to work with," Olson said of the editorial board. "They like to talk about important things and they don't talk down to you. They take you seriously."

What makes the process work, according to Hochman, is that the collaboration is between kids from different backgrounds, who have never met, communicating with each other about their ideas. At last count, Hochman said, contributors have come from 12 different countries.

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