SALT LAKE CITY — An independent documentary filmmaker may have unwittingly stumbled onto a solution for many of the challenges today's teens face worldwide.
Through a series of annual interviews with children and teens, filmmaker Rick Stevenson found that those who participated in the project became more introspective, felt less lonely and were better able to handle life's challenges.
"Most of us live our own lives just seeing around the next curve,” he said. “This process helps you learn what might be around the next curve because of what was around the last one.”
After seeing the BBC documentary "Seven Up," which followed subjects every seven years, Stevenson decided he wanted to create a film of his own. Only he would follow up with the interview subject annually. He developed questions with a mental health expert.
Out of this came the 5000 Days Project and a feature film called "Two Brothers," which ran on BYUtv. The film followed Luke and Sam Nelson, highlighting their evolving relationship with each other over 5,000 days, beginning in 2001. They were two of 60 children whom Stevenson followed.
“I’m convinced that the reason a lot of us are in therapy later is that there’s things that happen to us that we literally push out of our head," Stevenson said.
The 5,000 Days Project has since evolved into the The School of Life Project, which allows children and teens to work through trauma, whether severe or the result of everyday life, rather than internalizing it.
Through The School of Life Ambassador's Film Project, Stevenson has made a 13-part TV series and two feature films, and he has nine more in the works. The material is also being used to make school media curriculum to help kids with social and emotional learning and "to let other kids know that they are not alone on the road to growing up," according to The School of Life Project website.
In order to reach more children, Stevenson created the StoryCatcher program, which is in its third year of testing and first year of circulation. Schools and organizations can house kiosks where children can ask questions on their own.
In summer 2013, the Orem Library was among the places that hosted StoryCatcher kiosks.
This program has been brought to hundreds of children representing 10 countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Chile, Germany, South Africa and Cambodia. There are plans to branch out to Rwanda this year.
Stevenson plans to reach 10,000 children in 2014 and 100,000 more in the next few years. He ultimately hopes families will be able to bring the project into their homes, although he said he is not yet at liberty to say how or in what form.
With all the other programs available for children, why should families invest the time, energy and funds necessary to use this project in their homes?
"I think more than anything it helped me understand myself," said Luke Nelson, 22. Nelson served an LDS Church mission to Cambodia.
In addition to being featured in "Two Brothers," Nelson was also interviewed for The School of Life Project while a missionary. He said the interviews were an annual accountability system for him to track his progress each year. From his experience in the country, he said, the interviews might also be good for the Cambodian children.
While a missionary, Nelson said, he witnessed emotional abuse within families. Much of this came from parents who lived through the Khamer Rouge conflict, in which between 1.5 million and 2 million Cambodians were killed, and the subsequent Vietnamese occupation. The parents learned to not show emotion almost as a defense mechanism, he said, and often passed this on to their children. There was not much love or focus on children, he said.
"It's almost like their feelings aren't important," so it's more difficult to get them to open up, he said.
Stevenson teamed up with Mary-Anne Hatch to further the project in Cambodia. This will be the third year that Hatch and Stevenson conduct interviews at the Sunrise Children's Village Orphanage in Cambodia.
“This project gives to a child who has been utterly powerless in the circumstances of his or her life absolute center stage in the power of being able to tell their own story, their own narrative,” Hatch said.
Hatch explained that they use a "soft approach" of asking simple questions to children to get them to understand and work through their own feelings.
The questions are benign: Name? Age? Who do you have a crush on? What makes you happy? Tell me about the last time you cried.
Through these simple questions, Stevenson and Hatch said, they have seen miracles happen. Those miracles range from a child learning to love himself or herself to a teen crying for the first time in years.
"I think what (the project) does is give the child an opportunity to reflect without getting too bogged down in the details," Hatch said.
Many children at this orphanage come from families where the parents are often too poor to keep the children. Geraldine Cox, founder of the orphanage, rescues children who would otherwise be trafficked or abandoned.
Cox embraces the idea that if children feel loved, they will be able to change society and affect generations, Hatch said.
Cox has used art therapy and other means to get the children to talk about their feelings and experiences. The interviews are another way to help these youths open up.
Although these children's experiences do not seem much like those of the average teen in the U.S., Hatch said there are universal similarities. Most teens feel alone and powerless at some point. By participating in the interviews and seeing others' accounts, they come to realize that other people have similar struggles.
The interviews can help children feel empowered regardless of their circumstances.
One of the "biggest enemies of children is disempowerment," Stevenson said. "They have within themselves the ability to make the best of their own lives."
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