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Talent students get chance to ‘share our stories’

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Talent Elementary teacher Jessica Ward and her fifth-grade class participated in a Jefferson Public Radio podcast.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Fifth-grader Aidan Barrow talks on a podcast with other Talent Elementary students about post-Almeda fire difficulties he faced.
Elementary school creates podcast about kids dealing with pandemic, Almeda fire

TALENT — Stories submitted for a National Public Radio podcast project by local fifth-graders — in which the 10- and 11-year-olds shared their thoughts on facing the pandemic and the devastating Almeda fire — will be featured Friday on Jefferson Public Radio.

Inspired to participate in NPR’s Student Podcast Challenge, held annually for students in grades 5 through 12, Talent Elementary School teacher Jessica Ward posed a series of questions to kids to get them to talk about their lives over the past two years.

Ward, who helps run the school’s Outdoor Discovery Program, wanted to document the kids’ memories about everything from remote learning and struggles with mask-wearing to how they and their families coped in the aftermath of the September 2020 Almeda fire, which displaced most students in the Phoenix-Talent School District, with some losing their homes entirely.

For the podcast challenge, Ward and the students worked to set up a makeshift recording studio out of reams of paper, blankets and pillows, with the goal of recording an hour-and-a-half worth of audio.

Once the kids had their chance to talk, stories flowed, Ward said, with conversation meandering from physical distancing and the occurrence of new COVID variants to religion and separation of friends and family due to both fire and pandemic.

Ten-year-old Josephine Park felt a sense of duty to share her experience after the Almeda fire and about COVID-19.

“I think it was important to be able to share our stories, because some kids think that they aren’t really being heard, and all of them have a lot of things to say and stories to tell about the things that have been going on in our lives,” she said.

“I talked about how hard it’s been to be a kid with COVID happening and about the fire, how it affected everyone I know. I was kind of nervous to use a podcast at first and talk about it being really hard, but then I kind of just did it and I don’t regret it now.”

Josephine’s father, Isaac Park, said the podcast was a good chance for kids to process their thoughts.

“These kids have been through a pretty unique time in history, and obviously it’s been pretty traumatic in various ways,” he said.

“But, also, I think kids are resilient and it’s cool being able to see them have a platform to be able to express themselves and process some of what’s happened to them,” he said. “When I think back on my childhood, I can’t think of a single sort of event that happened that was as catastrophic or era-defining as this pandemic globally, and then to have this fire locally. It will be pretty cool for them to have something to listen back on when they’re older, to remind them all they’ve been through.”

Survival was a definite topic on the mind of Aidan Barrow, 11. Telling stories for the podcast reminded him of a favorite book series.

“I read a book series called “I Survived,” and it’s about all these natural disasters and wars and crazy stuff like that. When you think about it, COVID and the fire could be turned into an “I Survived” book,” Aidan said.

“That way, people around the world can listen to the podcast and understand what happened, which is actually kind of mind-blowing.”

Settled with his family a year-and-a-half after Almeda, Aidan’s family was one of many to lose their home and have to relocate.

“My house basically got incinerated. We lost our home and had to move and everything,” he said. “A lot of tears were shed. It was … pretty rough.”

Aidan’s mom, who said the family evacuated from Phoenix to Shady Cove, only to evacuate again due to another fire, said the podcast had been therapeutic for her son. Talking about things, in general, had been helpful for both her sons.

“I like that it was a project for all the kids to share their thoughts,” said the mom.

“It was a community thing and not just based on one person’s story. Sharing those stories, collectively, is very cathartic.”

Ward said she was excited for her students to be featured on JPR Friday. Making the podcast and documenting students’ stories was a learning process for teacher and students alike, she noted.

A surprise for Ward — who expected the students’ stories of the fire to be the most emotional — was that students said they were most weary of “COVID fatigue.”

“So many of our families had houses burn down, and they’re seeing their community slowly be rebuilt, but it was the pandemic just dragging on for forever that was the most frustrating,” Ward said.

“Even though we’ve seen a lot of resilience in kids in so many ways, and they’re wearing masks and not complaining too bad, they’re basically like, ‘But OK, give me an end date. Let me know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Each of the students was asked about their biggest hope for the coming year, and the answers had to do with a return to normalcy, Ward said.

“When we asked each of the kids, what are you most hopeful about,” said Ward, “universally, they all said, ‘I hope for COVID-19 to end.’”

She added, “There were differences in all their stories and experiences, but also so many similarities.”

Students will be featured live on Jefferson Public Radio Friday at about 8:30 a.m. To listen, tune into radio station 1220 AM. For more online, see studentpodcastchallenge22.splashthat.com.

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at Buffyp76@yahoo.com.