Think Big for Kids Grant Recipient, Saint Louis Story Stitchers

In her 10th year with Saint Louis Story Stitchers, President and Executive Director Susan Colangelo says she has never before seen this level of trauma in youth. Gun violence, the pandemic, poverty, toxic dialogue and more have created an unprecedented mental health crisis in children and youth, she says, “and compounding the issue is that many are aware of their trauma but ‘frozen’ to deal with it.” Through a $120,000, two-year, Think Big for Kids grant from YouthBridge, Story Stitchers is creating a series of public service announcements (PSAs) to help change the stigma around mental health care and provide information on accessing it.

“YouthBridge has believed in Story Stitchers and helped strengthen our ability to grow as a nonprofit,” says Colangelo. “Over the past five years, we’ve received numerous grants from them, but this is the most substantial and, I believe, could be the most impactful.”

An artist collective that was established as a nonprofit in 2014, Saint Louis Story Stitchers brings together minority youth (16-24 years old) and professional artists to tell the stories of St. Louis through art, writing and performing. New works are shared through public presentations and performances in the neighborhoods in which the youth live. The guiding principles, says Colangelo, are that artists can be catalysts for social change and youth are the future of humanity. The works are driven by the interests and concerns of low-income youth of color, many of them centered on gun violence and issues of public health and safety.

The PSAs, titled “Perception Isn’t Always Reality: Mental Health,” will be targeted to 65,000 youth of color and their families in North St. Louis City and County and created by 10 paid youth working alongside professional artist mentors, with guidance from a medical team. “We know that youth trust peer-to-peer messaging over anyone else giving them the same information, and we’ll be tackling the issues that all of them can relate to, such as fear of digging up the past or not knowing where to get help,” says Colangelo.

The campaign is modeled after two previous Story Stitchers PSA projects, the first of which was prompted by an internal discovery. “During the days of COVID when event venues were requiring vaccinations, we were discovering that many of our student performers were hesitant to get vaccinated,” she says. “We brought in a team of public health experts from Washington University, led by Dr. Matthew Kreuter, to talk to the youth about their concerns and found that distrust and fear ran deep within their communities.”

Colangelo says the organization pursued a grant with the CDC Foundation to create a series of PSAs that would reevaluate the messages young people may have been receiving about COVID and vaccinations. Through their own brand of urban storytelling – hip hop, krump dance, podcasting and more – students not only addressed vaccine safety and efficacy, but underlying feelings at play. “The PSAs reminded youth of their worthiness,” says Colangelo, “and also that even if they weren’t concerned about getting sick or dying from a virus, they could be putting a loved one at risk. Caring for a loved one can be a powerful motivator.”

This latest series of PSAs will be disseminated through similar vehicles as the first ones – bus ads, radio spots, social media – and contain the same theme of “you are worthy to be well.” “I’m so excited for this project to start, as it’s also an opportunity for our artists to showcase their talents and leadership,” says Colangelo. “Our young people are determined that their lives are going to be different and will have an impact.”