Given all that’s happening in the world right now, I could have dedicated this column to the power of a single vote or the importance of down-ballot elections in a Presidential election year.

I certainly could have given kudos to Geneva’s elected officials (Mayor Valentino, councilors Noone, Pruett, and Salamendra) who objected to efforts to nickel-and-dime services away from residents to try to balance the city budget instead of seeking significant structural changes in the city’s largest cost centers if Geneva’s taxes are ever going to be brought into an acceptable range. I could have drawn your attention to the increasing alerts from regional public health directors about rising COVID infection rates as people try to resume “normal” life during nothing-close-to-normal pandemic times. I was even tempted to write a column that would describe all the ins-and-outs of the impending eviction and foreclosure crisis that the service agencies on the City-Town COVID Task Force are preparing to deal with as moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures eventually expire.

But then I listened to a podcast that reminded me of a common thread of thought that ties all of these issues together — our basic desire to be cared for, and our fundamental need as human beings to care for one another. The podcast? Brene Brown’s “Unlocking Us,” specifically her interview with the Rev. Michael Curry. You might know Rev. Curry as the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, or remember him delivering the address for the 2018 Royal Wedding (Prince Harry), or maybe you bumped elbows when he visited Geneva that same year? Maybe you aren’t familiar with him but have tuned into Vatican Radio for the Holy See’s call to be “our brother’s keeper” or maybe you aren’t religious at all — but there is a critical message here: We should not ignore the suffering of others, and we must take seriously our obligation to alleviate suffering where and when we are able.

If you read this column with any regularity, you know I often discuss “A Christmas Carol” in the wintertime, so I’ll deal with those who said “Bah, Humbug!” to that later. But for those of you who take seriously the call to be something other than selfish, let’s talk about the kids for a minute.

Every morning that area kids report in-person to school they complete a two-part screening. First, there is an online questionnaire that asks about any COVID-related symptoms (fever, cough, fatigue). You must certify that the child is free of those, or they must stay home. When students arrive at school, they undergo a second screening (temperature checks, in-person symptoms interview) before they are cleared to enter. All of these “How are you feeling?” questions are aimed exclusively at physical health, and stopping the spread of COVID. This is an important and noble aim — to keep people healthy to allow for in-person education.

But what about something else that we know is spreading through the community? Loneliness, depression, anxiety. What can we do to identify, triage, and hopefully heal these afflictions within our children?

In response to a request from the school district, the aforementioned COVID Task Force created an easy-to-read flyer of mental health resources for distribution to high school students and families. But how do we know how kids are doing if we don’t ask? And even if we do ask, have we provided children the language and understanding of their feelings beyond just “happy, angry, sad”? In many cases, the answer is “no.” Many adults I know are unable to identify feelings beyond those cardinal points — we don’t teach people the vocabulary of fear, shame, trepidation, hopefulness, anticipation, curiosity. If we don’t teach a rich emotional vocabulary, we might miss a chance to intervene when a child who lashes out isn’t able to explain that they are really feeling afraid and that their fear might stem from a situation at home that requires immediate help.

Sobering statistics provided by Geneva’s Child Advocacy Center show that child abuse is on the rise, but our ability to recognize and report it is constrained if kids don’t have the space or the words to share what they are experiencing.

As I always tell my kids, “Hurt people hurt people” so if we don’t break cycles of trauma early on, we will have communities of adults who let anger and fear rule their lives — through violence, racism, cruelty, and crime. Family Counseling of the Finger Lakes, Safe Harbors, and other organizations are striving to bring trauma-informed care to our communities. I would suggest one place to start would be a different kind of daily check-in with our students, one where we present them with a range of words to describe their emotions and let them provide us a better window into their world. Once we see where it hurts, we can work together to heal it.

Jackie Augustine lives with her three children in Geneva, where she served on City Council for 16 years. An ethics instructor at Keuka College, she also is co-director of the Seneca7 relay race. Email her at writethingcolumn@gmail.com.

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