About this project

It’s the last day of Rainbows program at Von Humboldt Elementary this year and a dozen or so children are sitting in a circle in the school social worker’s office. Two of the youngest are 1st-grade boys—one slight with a mop of golden brown hair; the other stocky with a buzz cut.

As others in the group talk, the boys look around. One of the older girls—maybe an 8th-grader—mentions that her father died and that the Rainbows group has helped her deal with the pain. Another girl, who appears to be 10, says sometimes she comes to school hurting inside, but after going to Rainbows she feels better.

Others in the group have parents who are divorced or in prison. They have spent the past few months meeting weekly and talking about a loss. As a culminating exercise today, they discuss what the program has meant to them.

This is the first time that Von Humboldt has had a Rainbows program. To celebrate the inaugural effort, Rae Anne Alvarez, the social worker who coordinated the group, passes out journals and bookmarks as parting gifts.

Bilingual teacher Lucy Principato, who Alvarez recruited to facilitate a breakout group, is sitting next to the little boys. She leans over and tells them that they can write in their journals whenever they get mad or sad. “Isn’t it nice?” she says.

Getting the boys to speak up was difficult initially, Principato says. Not just because they are boys, but also because they are so young that they don’t always know how to put words to their feelings. But through games and other group activities, the boys opened up. Playing “emotion basketball,” for instance, required that they shout out a specific emotion before shooting a basket. Principato would tell them, “Say something good about yourself.” And someone would respond, “I am a good reader,” and then toss a ball.

“I told them that nothing that they could say would shock me, but they did shock me,” Principato says. One of the little boys confided in Principato that he felt lonely and like he wasn’t loved. “He actually said he feels like he lives in a bubble,” she recalls.

Now, Principato says she has a lasting bond with these two boys, whom she has encouraged to come back and talk to her often. Without Rainbows, these boys would probably never talk to anyone about their feelings, she says.

And to Principato, they would have just been two faces passing in the hallway.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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