Hundreds of mental health kits being assembled to help kids in Minneapolis and St. Paul

As communities try to process the death of George Floyd and cope with the unrest that followed, a group of volunteers is working to reach out to children.

Ayanna Hagness Duren, who has two young children, has been putting together mental health bags.

They’re for children living in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood, north Minneapolis and south Minneapolis, who saw their stores looted and set on fire. They also watched the National Guard move into their neighborhoods, all while trying to process Floyd’s death.

“It was traumatic for all of us,” said Hagness Duren. “What I kept noticing was we were focusing a lot on the adults and taking care of the adults […] they were able to go to protests, speak up.”

She’s a licensed therapist and said children aren’t always able to voice the trauma they’re experiencing.

“I was like, ‘I need to do something, I need to do something,’" said Hagness Duren.

She developed bags for several different age groups, from 3 years old through eighth grade. Each contains a book with an African American child as the lead character, a notebook to draw or write down feelings, games or toys, a water bottle and a stuffed animal.

“I was hoping these bags would at least provide them some solace that somebody cares about them is thinking about them and knows that [they’re] struggling,” she said. “They need us as adults to step up and be there for them and this was one way I could do it.”

Hagness Duren initially planned to make 50 mental health bags. Her idea was then shared on social media and requests started coming in. She expects to make as many as 1,000 of these bags, or more.

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“I really want the kids to know that we love them, we care about them, we know that they’re hurting and they are our future,” she said. “We need them mentally whole and we can’t do that if we continue to allow, or have them be, traumatized. We need to make sure that we are loving them and caring about them and we see their beauty.”

It’s also a way to help parents as they deal with their own trauma, she said.

She’s receiving donations from across the country, including from California, Texas and Pennsylvania.

“I called her immediately and said, ‘Camphor is in,’” said Reverend Dr. Ronald Bell, with Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church in St. Paul. “How can we make sure our kids participate in this act of healing, this act of loving on each other?”

Volunteers from the church have now helped Hagness Duren pack hundreds of bags. She’s already delivered more than 100 to civil rights attorney Nekima Levy Armstrong for families in North Minneapolis.

Another 200 will be distributed from the church on Thursday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., reaching families in the Midway, Rondo and Frogtown neighborhoods.

Dr. Bell has two young sons. He said one of the worst moments he’s had as a parent was explaining to them how George Floyd died.

“Watching their facial expressions as they tried to reconcile how an innocent man could be killed by police was heart-wrenching both for me and traumatizing for them,” he said. “My 8-year-old started to cry, my 5-year-old just didn’t understand and kept asking over and over again, ‘What do you mean? He was innocent, he was innocent,’ and so we had to sit there and really be in that moment.”

He said there are thousands of children in the church’s neighborhood trying to grapple with the same questions and how to respond.

“I had one kid ask me the other day, ‘Are we in a war zone?’” said Dr. Bell. “Seeing the tankers on the streets the National Guard with guns, asking me ‘Are we in the middle of war? Who are we fighting against?’”

On Thursday evening, there will be 20 therapists and counselors on hand at Camphor UMC. Families can also participate in healing circles, art therapy, singing activities, and pick up food items.

“To remind them that we see you, we see you, you matter to us, you are valuable to us, we love you,” he said. “This is a moment for them to realize, for the children to realize, for the families to realize you have not been forgotten.”

To contribute to Hagness Duren, visit her Facebook page. She said fundraisers that do not include “TC Kids Mental Health” are not legitimate.