Sunday, September 27, 2020

You Should Watch This!

This is the official music video for TRY SO HARD, the third track off my kid's debut EP, HALF FULL, written and performed (and produced by the awesome Frankie Matos) while in quarantine. 

Hey, it's my kid. He's awesome. It's awesome. And we'd love your support. You can stream his music wherever streaming music is streamed (Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube and more!)

If you liked that, catch the official lyrics video for Staying In. Bot those songs are part of his Half Full EP on Spotify or Apple Music HERE!! <--- Go on! Don't keep reading until you click that link. I'm pretty sure you won't be sorry. 

And if you do, in fact, love it, please follow him on facebook or instagram and, more importantly, share!!! Especially, share with your kids and have them share. It takes a village. If you're reading this, you're my village. 

Friday, September 11, 2020

We All Need to Be Kinder

Since THE MEMORY OF THINGS came out, I've been talking about 9/11 -- an unwitting emotional "expert" of sorts, by way of the research I did, and the story I told.

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I believe my novel -- and others' stories -- on this subject are essential, because kids in desks, K-12, weren't even alive when our country was changed forever that impossibly sunny blue-skied day. They have as little feel for 9/11 and its aftereffects as I had for WWII when I was in school. They don't get it, and they don't care.

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Science has shown that reading literary fiction builds empathy. Just last night, I had a message from a 15-year-old boy in Indiana -- I'll call him C here -- who read my book for school, and something resonated, something clicked. He is going through a rough time.

"I'm a student of [omitted for privacy reasons]," he tweeted to me, "and I would like to say I loved the book were reading in our class i read ahead and finished it and they recommended talking to u. I loved the book wich [sic] is odd because I never read books but I must say that is one of my favorite books."

We exchanged messages for about an hour. About music, about his recent breakup, about life. I offered to send him a signed copy of my book, and a few of my other titles. I just got back from the post office. "We need more kind people," he wrote to me.

Indeed, we do.

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There are hashtags and sayings forever associated with 9/11: We're all in this together. #neverforget.

But are we? Have we?

We have a virus -- a pandemic in this country-- that has already killed nearly 200,000 people. Science and medicine have told us masks help. Masks work. Distancing works. And yet, day after day we are flooded with images of those who refuse to even try to help. Worse, those who harm those who try to help.

I know not everything after 9/11 was peace, love and harmony, that Islamophobia and conspiracy theories arose, that here and there, looters took advantage.

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But mostly, there was an overwhelming sense of shared historic grief, a sense of urgent connection. A sense we were responsible not only for ourselves, but one another.

On a small scale, we've sure seen that since March. In our healthcare workers, our essential workers, and our educators, now, who continue to put their lives on the line for us every single day. But as a nation? It's heartbreaking, and I can't help ask myself the rhetorical question: What has changed?

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Not everything is political. The fate of our neighbors, our friends, the fate of strangers, all matter.

We are all human. Our kids need us to rally TOGETHER. Not for a political party but for humanity.

Our healthcare and essential workers need us.

Our educators need us.

That boy, C? He reminded me of another male student, this one I'll call M, from Kansas, I "met" via my book a few years back who I stayed in touch with simply because of a story. My story about 9/11, and a time our country was in trouble. And we all came together. A story about one kid who finds his way through grief to cope, and in doing so, learns how to step up and be a better person. That boy, M, just messaged me two nights ago to tell me he graduated high school and is headed off to the marines.

"Wow, congrats! That's hard," I wrote. "You must be proud. And brave." We messaged on for a bit and soon enough I wrote my heart: "Please find a way to be tough. . . and also kind and accepting. A hard juggle."

"I will," M responded with a purple heart. "Thank you."

#NeverForget #WeAreSTILLAllInThisTogether #Nineeleven #Kindness #SharedHistory #literaryfictionbuildsempathy

Monday, June 15, 2020

Book Releases in the Time of Covid (and a Few Clues to Reader Love)

I've spent a lot of time lying on the ground these past months, lying where I'm planted.

Maybe it's metaphorical.

Maybe I'm just exhausted like many of us, from the constant upheaval, both political and pandemical.

If that's not a word, it really should be.

I, myself, live here in NY on LI, a hot spot. In fact the hottest of the hotspots, in a way you never wanted to win that title. And I've spent most of it sick with an undiagnosed respiratory thing that seemed sprung from a 24-hour virus the first week in March...

For sure, it's taken a toll on me. I've aged several years in these past few months. I know many of you will nod along.

 As much as we've all suffered, I can't help feel that, much like after 9/11, those of us in NY and NJ have lived through something slightly (or majorly) different than the rest of you. For months, the world here was out of a sci fi movie (and still is), empty and quiet and terrifying, everything shut down but essential workers.

Doctor friends told horror stories. They slept away from their families. Pop up ICU's filled formerly public spaces. Our daily death numbers were in the thousands. Now as the virus spread has finally slowed and states have begun to open back up, I don't take any of it lightly. My kids are still here. My parents are still here! My friends are still here. And I'm finally starting to feel better myself.

And yet, people close to me were not that lucky. People close to me have lost their people. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, husbands and friends. My sons have lost icons, people in their prime who shouldn't have been cut down. And don't get me started on the rest of the news. . . 

As the country opens up, so much of it carelessly, I don't know how many of us here in NY feel capable of weathering another round.

And yet.

In the middle of it, some silver linings. Here in the northeast, spring sprung. The environment has rebounded some. People have taken to the streets in record numbers to decry ongoing police brutality and blatant racism. 

My son in the rainbow mask at a local protest. 

The open water swim season has begun, and I feel well enough to finally swim.

In the middle of all of that, I had not one but two book releases. Maybe I don't have to tell you how hard it is to be a midlist author releasing books into a covid/quarantine abyss.

I write literary young adult (and now middle grade!) fiction. School/library is my most supportive audience (and purchaser). Yet these books came out to a nation of closed libraries and booksellers.

It hasn't been pretty. JACK KEROUAC IS DEAD TO ME, a book I worked on for over the course of a decade, came out in early April as EVERYTHING shut down. Few library districts have picked it up. Few non-trade reviewers even covered it. SEVEN CLUES TO HOME came out in the midst of protests and unrest on the day of George Floyd's funeral. Even the best self promoter with the most hardened heart would be hard pressed to shout out their books in the middle of these far greater things that need our attention.

And yet.

And yet.

This is my career. My livelihood.

And barely at that.

Like many of us, I have been struggling to find both balance and salvation. Like many of us, I have been struggling to make sense, struggling to map a future, struggling to do better in a world that often seems to tell me my better will never be enough. When I'm already pretty damned good at telling myself that.

But even in the book biz, there have been silver linings. Our local Barnes and Noble just opened and I decided to stop in, trying to brace myself for the reality that, by now, JACK KEROUAC IS DEAD TO ME might already be gone from its shelves. If it ever even found its way there in the first place.

Instead, I found it here:

It took me five books to find one of my titles displayed with the big names like this.

And SEVEN CLUES TO HOME has gotten some incredible reviews including Booklist who called it a "modern-day Bridge to Terebithia" and Kirkus who called it a "heartfelt tour de force."

You can see (and share!) the official trailer for the book here:

If you are a parent, educator or a librarian reading, my co-writer Nora and I have been doing a ton of work to connect young readers not only to the story but to the outside world around them. In an age of physical distancing, we've created a bunch of fun activities, our favorite, a series of book-related mini-scavenger hunts we hope our readers enjoy. 

 I'll share the hunts below. And, remember, the point of these hunts is to have fun! Creativity, fresh air, and flexibility are encouraged, perfection, not so much.

So, for example, if it says to find a dolphin or peacock, they don’t have to be live ones -- though big kudos if they are! Instead, they can be paintings of them, or versions embroidered on a pillow, or even clouds shaped like one!

Find and take a photo of each of the following items (it’s okay to be creative!): 

  1. A white envelope with a name on it;
  2. A guitar;
  3. A pizza parlor;
  4. Carved words or numbers in wood;
  5. A dolphin
  6. A pie (or pi).
Hunt #2: BE THRIFTY 
Find and take a photo of each of the following items (it’s okay to be creative!): 

  1. Something bejeweled or bedazzled;
  2. A “so tiny dog that looks like a rat;”
  3. An old-fashioned toy that winds up, claps, or spins;
  4. A hat with a feather;
  5. A peacock . . . or peafowl ;)
  6. A constellation.

Find and take a photo of each of the following items (it’s okay to be creative!): 

  1. A tackle box or fishing rod;
  2. Someone telling a short, dumb joke (video);
  3. A gazebo;
  4. A big juicy worm;
  5. A heron or other seabird;
  6. A lighthouse.

Find and take a photo of each of the following items (it’s okay to be creative!): 
  1. A painted rock;;
  2. A heart-shaped tree;
  3. A “whale’s eye” shaped knot in a tree;
  4. A bus shelter;
  5. Some sort of hole;
  6. A rainbow.
Find and take a photo of each of the following items 
(it’s okay to be creative!): 

  1. A red box or container
  2. Heart necklace or other heart-shaped jewelry 
  3. M&Ms, Skittles or other candy you could plant as “seeds” 
  4. A potted plant - real or artificial
  5. A cloud formation that clearly looks like an animal or object
  6. A love note, or handwritten note from a friend.

In fact, I'll run my own personal-three book giveaway here. Through the end of August, if your child reads SEVEN CLUES TO HOME and completes all five mini hunts, have them email me a photo of them holding a copy of the book, as well as photos of the objects they found, and I'll enter them to win a package of three signed copies of my books and a skype/zoom or google hangouts conversation with me (if they want it!). They can email me at (if you email and don't get a response without 48 hours, it means your email somehow did not get to me!) They can also tag me on instagram @gaepol and share their scavenger hunt photos there with me! Sending love out to the universe and to all of you, Gae

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Mental Health & Coping

I'm not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV.

So why do I seemingly so often write about mental health? About characters struggling with mental health?

Because I'm human.

In fact, when IN SIGHT OF STARS, my first book that really centered around one boy's struggle with his mental health/state, got classified (by a publishing INDUSTRY needing to label how to shelve things in a bookstore) as a book about mental illness, it surprised me a little.

I hadn't written a story about a kid with mental illness (nor had I NOT written that story. . . ).  I simply wrote a story about a boy -- this boy, Klee -- who had one-too-many hard things pile on him and felt like he couldn't cope anymore.

Who fell apart.

Who broke temporarily.

And who, then, found a way -- WITH HELP -- to pull himself back together for the time being.

All things I had experienced or witnessed as part of my journey as a human.

In my newest book, JACK KEROUAC IS DEAD TO ME, my main character's mother, most visibly, struggles with her own mental health. Her diagnosis would likely skew toward more definitive mental illness, but she has not yet been fully diagnosed.

In that story, I try to show how hard it can be to get a grasp on some struggles, and how it might affect the child of a parent struggling. But it is without judgment.

My goal is always to give my characters room to suffer, and even to break, and the hope -- and room -- to heal again.

The world is harder than ever (ya think!?!)

Even without a country divided and a pandemic, I believe we all have, or will, face mental health challenges in our lives at one point or another, and the more we talk about our struggles, the more connected we are, and the more able we will be to reach out for help and heal.

That's why my friend, and world's best virtual co-hugger, Cheryl Rainfield, is asking us all to band together tomorrow, Thursday April 23rd, to let others know there is #NoShameInCoping, that it's okay to #ShieldYourMentalHealth, and to #ReachOutToConnect. 
Learn more about Cheryl HERE.

So, let's all #ReachOutToConnect !!!

There is no shame in needing help. There is no stigma in falling apart. There is #NoShameInCoping

And you have every right to #ShieldYourMentalHealth 

Please know there are good and skilled people out there who care and want to help. They can and they will.

I know. I've met them.

xox gae

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

A Little Obsessed with Kerouac . . .

 Me, in front of Gunther's Tap Room in Northport, NY
last summer. Photo credit, Rick Kopstein

In the coming weeks before the release of my fifth novel, JACK KEROUAC IS DEAD TO ME, I'm going to share both tidbits about the story and the writing process, and about the eponymous author, Jack Kerouac, himself.
Though some will clearly go into my novel wishing to find more about Kerouac, the title should be a bit of a tip off. It is NOT a book about Kerouac. Rather, like me, my MC is not a huge fan of Kerouac's -- though for very different reasons. . . Though Kerouac, himself, does appear in a pivotal scene in the book.

I want to love Kerouac's books more than I do. I've delved back into some of his works, post-writing mine, for this book release. At the moment, I'm slogging through the middle of Big Sur. His writing is inarguably extraordinary. Still, I fall in the school of being, first, breathtakingly enamored with his talent, then grow slightly lost or bored in his ramblings, and find myself craving a bit more hardcore editing.

Having said that, I am fascinated by his life, and the fact that he lived for a while in Northport, NY, very close to where I live, makes him feel all the more real and relevant to me. And the closer I get to my release date, the more I find myself reading him, and drifting around the internet and beyond to catch glimpses of his life. I will share some of that with you in coming weeks.

Inside Gunther's Tap Room, in front of the eponymous author.
photo credit, Rick Kopstein
No doubt, Kerouac was both a talent and a tortured human being, never clearer than in this Newsday piece from July 2000 that was covering an exhibition/retrospective being held in that town.
From Newsday staff writer Ariella Budick, printed July 13, 2000:
EVEN AMONG Beat aficionados, it is a little-known fact that Jack Kerouac spent six years, on and off, in Northport, Long Island.
Celebrated during his lifetime as "King of the Beats," Kerouac retreated to a shingled Victorian at 34 Gilbert St. in 1958, the year after the publication of "On the Road."
His rapid rise to fame-he was heralded as the gifted spokesman for a disenchanted generation-yielded to an equally precipitous decline that, by the time he moved to Northport, was in full swing. An exhibit at the Northport Historical Society, devoted to Kerouac's sad years in the sleepy village he briefly called home, details the impact the writer made on Northport and the less significant impact Northport seems to have made on him. It is a tightly focused show, designed for two quite specific, and necessarily limited, sets of viewers: Northport history buffs and steadfast Kerouac disciples.
Kerouac moved to Northport with his mother, whom he called Memere, the constant companion of his adult life. Memere, conservative and Catholic, thoroughly despised Kerouac's New York friends, whom she judged a noxious influence. She particularly loathed Allen Ginsberg for his Jewishness and his homosexuality, even threatening at one point to report him to the FBI for engaging in anti- American activities. She also sent angry missives to William S. Burroughs, who remarked, "My God! She really has him sewed up like an incision." Indeed, one of Kerouac's reasons for moving to Northport was to put some distance between himself and his cosmopolitan friends.

"By all accounts, Kerouac spent his Northport years in an alcoholic haze, 
playing pool at neighborhood bars. A series of depressing photos capture him, 
overweight and falling apart, clowning pathetically for the camera."

By all accounts, Kerouac spent his Northport years in an alcoholic haze, playing pool at neighborhood bars. A series of depressing photos capture him, overweight and falling apart, clowning pathetically for the camera. His inspiration was hopelessly stalled: The many books he brought out during these years were all written earlier, when publishers had been unwilling to consider his work.
Even so, Kerouac's presence seems to have made an impact on some young lives. George Wallace, the exhibit's curator, has enshrined testimonials from a small sampling of Northport's (then) youth, attesting to Kerouac's extraordinary influence: "He made me a thinking person," says Carol Watson, who was 15 when she first met the unstable author. Although the exhibition text informs us that Kerouac did not particularly appreciate attentions from fawning young fans, he enthusiastically joined them in juvenile high jinks. One incident, we are told, involved police chasing the aging Beat and a group of young boys out of an abandoned Gold Coast mansion, after which Kerouac fell asleep, drunk, in the woods.
Kerouac became increasingly conservative- even xenophobic-as he grew older and more isolated. He rabidly supported the Vietnam War, and his growing disenchantment with erstwhile Beat friends and their "anti-American views" sometimes sounded like paranoia.
"Somewhere along the line I knew there'd be girls, visions, everything," Kerouac rhapsodized in "On the Road"; "somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me." But this sometime son of Northport died in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1969, of severe hemorrhaging brought on by alcoholism. The critic Seymour Krim did not mince words:
"He died lonely and isolated like a hunched old man at only 47 with a comic strip beer belly, and faded, gross, ex-good looks, full of slack-lipped mutterings about the 'New York Jewish Literary Mafia.'"
The Northport tribute makes him hardly more appealing.
Ariella Budick, STAFF WRITER, July 2000

If you'd like to preorder a copy of JACK KEROUAC IS DEAD TO ME, you may do so through links here:

More soon!

- gae

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Back to School: THE BEST LAID PLANS . . . Bringing THE PULL OF GRAVITY into your classroom

Back to School? Teach OF MICE AND MEN?
Looking for a contemporary companion?
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BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN THE PULL OF GRAVITY AND OF MICE AND MEN:   People often ask why I incorporated John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men into my contemporary young adult novel, The Pull of Gravity. The short answer is that it was part intention, and part serendipity.
The Pull of Gravity follows teens Nick Gardner and Jaycee Amato who, armed only with the wisdom of Yoda, a rare first-edition copy of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and the vaguest of plans, embark on a secret road trip to try to keep a promise to the Scoot, their dying friend.
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With the words “vaguest of plans,” those familiar with Of Mice & Men will already recognize a glaring connection between the works: In both stories, plans go awry, and, in the course of the unraveling, Nick and Jaycee (like Lennie and George) learn some valuable, if at times painful, life lessons.
Intention vs. serendipity.
When I started writing The Pull of Gravity, I knew first and foremost that I wanted to write a character-driven piece, the ilk of which I read as a kid from the likes of Zindel, Blume, Konigsburg. To me, character-driven means that the characters are *the* reason you want to know the story, and not the other way around, with the plot driving the story. As Nick and Jaycee formed on the page, I thought, ‘how better to see if Jaycee is as persuasive and intriguing as I want her to be (and the chemistry between the two teens as real as I hope), than by seeing if she can *sell* the merits of an often-taught work of classic literature to Nick, a 15-yr old boy.’ Hence, the muse-driven idea of incorporating a classic novel into my debut was born.
But which piece of classic literature to choose? That is where intention factored in, and the connections between The Pull of Gravity and Of Mice and Men began to take shape.
No alt text provided for this imageWhy Of Mice and Men?
The main reason I chose Of Mice and Men was for the theme of friendship that reverberates through it. Indeed, the ending of Of Mice and Men may contain the ultimate act of friendship to be found in modern literature. Likewise, friendship is the main theme in The Pull of Gravity. Nick and Jaycee need each other, and their friendship buoys them through a time of change, heartache and pain.
I’ve also attempted to keep some structural similarities between the pieces. Of Mice & Men is a short work of fiction – a novella at 107 pages. George and Lennie’s story takes place over a mere four days. They set out on a Thursday and the story concludes on a Sunday.
While The Pull of Gravity is a longer work at 208 pages, the time frame of the story is brief, and the main part of Nick and Jaycee’s journey, to wit, their time in Rochester, NY, also unfolds Thursday through Sunday.
When I go into classrooms, I love to talk to students about how Steinbeck was able to create so much empathy for, and connection to, his characters in the space of so little time (and so few words) – the reader gets to know George and Lennie and, more importantly, to care about them, in not much more than a mere breath.
Similarly, Nick and Jaycee’s relationship unfolds quickly; they become important to one another – and, I hope to the reader— over a brief period.
Other Common Themes
- The American Dream (“Everybody Wants a Place of their Own”). Both The Pull of Gravity and Of Mice and Men deal with the desire to attain the American Dream: work that is bearable (if not more) and a small patch of land that feels like home. In The Pull of Gravity, Nick’s father is unable to attain this goal, to balance metropolitan career aspirations with his family’s move to the suburbs, which is one of the failures that spurs the main action of the book. Similarly, Jaycee is relegated to her mother’s new husband’s gaudy house, and, moreso, to the fluffy pink bedroom of the new husband’s daughter that will never feel like home.
Of Mice and Men illuminates the prejudices suffered by Lennie because of his mental disability, but also the challenges for George, his friend, in trying to care for him. In The Pull of Gravity, the Scoot has a physical, rather than mental, disability, and while he doesn’t suffer the direct prejudices Lennie does, Nick – just like George with Lennie – grapples with his role as a loyal friend versus obligated caretaker. Of course, ultimately, his love and loyalty shine.
Loss & Loneliness
The Pull of Gravity opens with this quote from Of Mice and Men:
“Lennie broke in. ‘But not us! An’ why? Because…because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.’ He laughed delightedly.”
This quote epitomizes the friendship theme that resonates through both stories. Without each other, George and Lennie have no one. Similarly, Jaycee and Nick experience a lack of fitting in, connecting, feeling grounded in their own lives, until they find one another.
Of course, the counters to friendship are loneliness and loss, and these themes also run through both stories. George and Lennie have suffered loss when we first meet them, and, once at the farm, there is the loss of Candy’s dog, of Lennie’s puppy, of Curly’s wife, and ultimately each other. In The Pull of Gravity Nick, Jaycee and the Scoot all suffer loss (whether temporary or permanent), of family structure, of innocence, and of friendship. It is a bond they have in common and that, ultimately, brings them closer together.
*this 2011 essay written with the generous assistance of Paul W. Hankins.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Maybe Your Students Need More Stories About Mental HEALTH

(adapted from an article I wrote on Linked In)
As we get ready to send our children, our adolescents, our teens and young adults, back into the classroom, it's time to think about those fall stressors, what each child is dealing with at home, in their personal lives, plus the pressures they face, perhaps, from the kid sitting next to them, or waiting for them down the hall.

Knowing this, knowing how many of our teens, especially, are suffering these days, many educators will encourage them to read books about mental illness. There are long lists of such books, many of them great, compelling stories, many award-winners, but how often I wish these stories reflected less about mental illness and more about mental HEALTH.
In fact, IMHO, some of the most famous of these books seem to glamorize mental illness and/or suicide in problematic ways. In these stories, the adults are rarely helpful and rarely very present at all.
In the face of rising natural, and unnatural, disasters, there's an oft-quoted Mr. Rogers' line, "Look for the helpers," but so often in these stories our kids read, the helpers, quite frankly, just aren't very good. They really don't seem to care much. They don't have much skill.
When I sign copies of STARS, I often include
a replica of Sister Agnes Teresa's ladder up.
Because who doesn't need a ladder up sometimes? 
I wondered why this was. . . and, as I wrote and shaped IN SIGHT OF STARS and realized my protagonist, Klee, was in a bad way and needed help, I wanted to present the other side, the side I have been lucky enough to experience -- from my high school guidance counselor who offered me a safe haven through all of junior and senior year, through some of the extraordinary therapists who have helped me and my family through some of our roughest times, their roughest times, as I raised my kids.
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That is Dr. Alvarez, a character modeled largely on a real therapist, a true and extraordinary helper who patiently works with Klee until he is ready to participate in his own healing during his stay at an in-patient rehab facility in a fictional town in upstate NY.
Therapists can be like shoes -- it often takes several tryings on before you find one that fits, find one that is comfortable, the right size and style for you. But they are out there, and I'm hungry for them to be fully reflected in books for teens.
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Similarly, I'm anxious for the use of psychotropic medications, where needed, to be positively reflected in young adult stories, which is to say, they don't change who a person is, or undermine their ability to be creative -- If they are, perhaps that person is on the wrong medication for them, or the wrong dosage. My experience with such medications is they simply allow the person to function more typically, as themselves, by quieting or taking the edge off atypical and problematic body chemistry.
In IN SIGHT OF STARS, Klee needs the help of medication for the time being, and may not need those medications in the near future.

No alt text provided for this imageYes, there is language in the story. YES, there are intense situations. Have you seen what our kids are privy to these days? Have you met any of our teens?
Look, all I know is our kids need help and support ,and if you want them to feel safe seeking it out, share stories with them where the help HELPS. Because it can, and does.

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I promise, it can and does.

- gae