A racist threatened him for his Black Santa decoration. His neighbors responded beautifully.
via Chris Kennedy / Facebook

Three years ago, Chris Kennedy and his family moved to the Lakewood neighborhood of North Little Rock, Arkansas. Every holiday season he has placed a seven-foot-tall Black Santa Claus on his lawn alongside his other decorations.

Kennedy believes the Black Santa Claus decoration is empowering for his five-year-old daughter.

"Our thing is about representation for our daughter, seeing herself in everything and knowing that she can do whatever she wants to do and she's not going to be limited by her color," he told Good Morning America. "The Black Santa is something I wanted my daughter growing up seeing."


"She doesn't even question seeing a white Santa Claus, because we've always told her that's what he looks like in other people's houses," Kennedy added. "For other people, Santa is a representation of them."

However, this year the Black Santa Claus would come to represent more than Kennedy ever intended.

On November 23, he received a letter in the mail from an angry racist demanding he remove the Black Santa Claus from his lawn. The letter claimed to be from Santa Claus and his homeowners' association.

via Chris Kennedy / Facebook

"Please remove your negro Santa Claus yard decoration," the letter reads. "You should try not to deceive children into believing that I am negro. I am a caucasian (white man, to you) and have been for the past 600 years. Your being jealous of my race is no excuse for your dishonesty. Besides that, you are making yourself the laughing stock of the neighborhood. Obviously, your values are not that of the Lakewood area and maybe you should move to a neighborhood out east with the rest of your racist kind."

The letter was accompanied by a photo of Santa Claus making a thumbs-down gesture.

via Chris Kennedy / Facebook

Kennedy was obviously incensed by the letter and so he read it on Facebook Live. He then contacted the local police department and post office to see if they could track down the racist.

Within a few hours, Kennedy was surprised to receive messages of support on Facebook from people he had never met.

A week later, the family began noticing Black Santa decorations around his neighborhood.

"I just started seeing them pop up in the neighborhood," he said. "The bright side of everything was the neighbors' response."

via Chris Kennedy / Facebook


via Chris Kennedy / Facebook

Since the incident, the Kennedy's have received Black Santa Claus gifts and countless messages of support. When people asked how they can help, he told them to donate to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas. The nonprofit offers housing to the families of sick children.

So far, the donations have covered over 200 nights of housing.

The homeowners' association has denied any connection with the letter and is proudly displaying a Black Santa Claus at its headquarters that was donated by a resident.

"To try to falsely blame us and say that those are our views was pretty upsetting," Evan Blake, director of the homeowner's association, said of the racist letter. "We support Chris completely and everyone else in Lakewood too and [adding a Black Santa Claus to the holiday display] is just something else we can do to show our support."

Kennedy is still upset about the letter but has been encouraged by the reaction his family has received after the incident.

"I'm not happy that it happened, but I'm happy that the conversations are being had," added Kennedy.

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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