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If you need life advice, press two. If you need a pep talk from kindergartners, press three.

Hotline is overwhelmed with callers seeking words of encouragement from elementary school students

Elementary students at West Side School in California offer their words of wisdom through a hotline, which now gets more than 9,000 callers an hour. (Asherah Weiss)

Every hour round-the-clock, about 9,000 people call in to an elementary school hotline. They are seeking a pep talk from children.

Sometimes so many people dial in at once that the hotline — a project created by a California public school — is overwhelmed and callers only hear a busy signal.

For the lucky ones who get through, this is what they hear from a cheerful young voice:

“If you’re feeling mad, frustrated, or nervous, press one.”

“If you need words of encouragement and life advice, press two.”

“If you need a pep talk from kindergartners, press three.”

Prerecorded advice for stressed callers, some of it in Spanish, includes: Punch your pillow and cry on it. Go get your wallet and spend it on ice cream and shoes. Jump on a trampoline. Go get a cookie. Be grateful for yourself. Be you. It’s okay to be different.

And, finally: “If you’re feeling up high and unbalanced, think of groundhogs!”

The hotline, called PepToc, was created by students at West Side School in Healdsburg, Calif., in Sonoma County, and was the idea of art teacher Jessica Martin.

It was intended to be part of a community project for the small school, which has 141 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. But it quickly caught on when it launched in late February as people are grasping for something positive amid headlines about Russian forces invading Ukraine and the third year of the pandemic. Depression rates have tripled in the pandemic, and confrontational, angry behavior has become commonplace.

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The PepToc hotline has become a small salve at a time of restlessness and frustration, a brief break to listen to innocent young voices earnestly sharing what makes them happy.

The pandemic has been difficult for kids as well as adults, Martin noted, but she said young children have a way to “maintain their joy and optimism even in an incredibly dark world.”

People started sharing the hotline phone number on social media, and the call volume quickly exploded: It got some 800 calls in one hour soon after launching in the last weekend of February, said Asherah Weiss, a visiting artist who worked on the project with Martin. A week later, it was getting 10 times that, and the numbers keep growing.

“This local project suddenly was shared all over the place and became this huge viral thing that wasn’t expected,” said Weiss, 34, a community artist whose work includes painting and photography. “The phone number became this really tangible thing that people could call and experience.”

Creating the hotline was the second step in an art project that started with students making fliers with encouraging messages, often in the form of tear-off tabs at the bottom.

People from the school posted the fliers around the community, in places like grocery stores and on telephone poles. They had messages like, “You are not the only one who wants to sigh loudly. It is OK to feel sad.”

Martin said the hotline idea came to her as she thought about the hotline she called as a child to get the time and date, as well as the Callin’ Oates hotline that plays Hall & Oates hit songs from the 1970s and ’80s.

She guessed that a hotline featuring kid wisdom would be charming enough to work.

So Martin researched how to create one, and she started making recordings from students who wanted to participate. She worked with the company Telzio, which provides business phone systems and usually charges by the minute for each call.

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Telzio saw the immediate success of the school project and sponsored the PepToc hotline for 1 million minutes. That will run out quickly, Martin said, so they are now seeking donations.

On Friday evening, the call volume increased to about 11,000 an hour. The school added a new line, 707-873-7862 (707-8PEPTOC), in addition to the original number, 707-998-8410, which crashed, but the school said they were working to get it up and running again.

Kids are learning empathy from the PepToc project, Weiss said.

“It’s like the natural tendency toward joy, and yet these kids are also going through so much and had a lot of different experiences that weigh on them,” Weiss said. “We thought this project could bring some joy to everybody, and that the kids could see that they could put their positive messages out in the world and be received. We just didn’t realize that the reception would be to this scale.”

Rima Meechan, principal of West Side School, said she loved the hotline idea when Martin presented it, and she hopes to get enough funding to keep PepToc operating through the end of the school year.

If that happens, they plan to add more recorded messages and incorporate a new theme every week or so.

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“We are beyond excited and overwhelmed by the positive responses we’ve received from all over the world,” Meechan said. “Our students are an inspiration, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

To absorb some of that delight, call one of the hotline numbers. Press three to hear a group of kindergartners shouting: “You can do it! Keep trying! Don’t give up!”

This story has been updated to include an additional phone number for the PepToc hotline, which was added when the original one crashed Friday night.

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