West Side kids ages 9 to 12 are getting an opportunity to capture and preserve their personal experiences throughout the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to the Once Upon a Time Capsule art project. 

The project is the brainchild of philanthropic programs developer Stacey Gillett and urban planner Stephanie Hodges, who felt that kids’ experiences during the pandemic weren’t getting as much attention as adult experiences.

They teamed up with several museums, nonprofit organizations and government institutions to reach out to as many parts of Chicago as possible. On the West Side, they worked with West Garfield Park’s Legler Regional Library, 115 S. Pulaski Rd.

Throughout July, groups of kids who attend local summer camps got a chance to make time capsules using kits. During the last event held July 27, 14 kids gathered at Legler to make time capsules. Families could also pick up kits at some libraries and return them by Aug. 12. There was enough demand to exhaust Legler’s supply of capsules and library staff said they were glad to see kids express themselves.

According to Hodges, Once Upon a Time Capsule, a Chicago area art project seeks to not only document kids’ experience, but to give kids an opportunity to reflect and encourage them to look forward to a better future. They also hope that the experience would offer some catharsis.

Young people create time capsules at Legler Library earlier this month. | Igor Studenkov

“This past year has made heroes of all of our children, too,” Gillett said. “We think kids need the opportunity to reflect individually and with peers on how they’re doing after the past 14 months.”

She and Hodges have worked with cultural institutions such as the Chicago History Museum, government agencies such as the Chicago Housing Authority and nonprofits such as the Hyde Park Art Center to hold events.

Several branch libraries are serving as time capsule kit pick-up and drop-off locations, including North Lawndale’s Douglass branch library, 3353 W. 13th St., and West Humboldt Park’s Richard M. Daley branch library, 733 N. Kedzie Ave. 

Chicago Public Library Commissioner Chris Brown said that it was only natural for the system to get involved.

“Libraries are keepers of stories, which makes us a natural partner for this project,” he said. “Once Upon Our Time Capsule emphasizes the power of story to create meaningful connections during a time when so many kids have struggled with isolation. We are proud to be a center for community and healing as part of this initiative.”

Legler works with several West Side summer day camps, hosting activities for kids. For the time capsule activity, each kid got a worksheet where they were asked to tell future kids what life was like before the pandemic, one “cool and exciting thing” about the pandemic, what was “hard or sad,” and what they hope the future will look like. The campers could write or draw the answers, and decorate the worksheet and the time capsule however they wanted.

The project gives a broad leeway for what goes into the capsule. They write an essay, draw something, put together a collage, take photos, record a video or use objects that had some meaning during the pandemic.

By the fall of 2021, all capsules will be brought together and sealed until 2026. Kids are encouraged to take pictures of the time capsules and their contents before submitting them, so that they would be able to find their capsules later.

Brandy Morrill, the children’s manager at Legler, said that the library hosted capsule-making workshops on three different days, with at least two groups coming on each day. She said that, while some kids needed more help than others, they all enjoyed the activity.

“I think it’s one of the most interesting things, that what [the kids] are experiencing is something that will be taught to other kids in school.” Morrill reflected. “So, being a piece of history is something we wanted to talk about with the kids. It’s been pretty special.”

Hodges, who helped out with the first group on Aug. 27, said she’s been impressed with the kids’ creativity and willingness to share.

“It’s been very exciting and very gratifying, and I hope it will give kids an opportunity to process,” she said.

For more information about the project, visit https://ourtimecapsule.org/.