'You are the heroes now': Chicago-area time capsule allows kids to share pandemic experiences

The contents of a single cylindrical canister offer a glimpse into the world of 8-year-old Ellie Landa and her younger sister, Calista, as they navigated the isolation and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A black face mask. A plush toy that made them smile. A sachet of the zinnias and lavender they started growing at their Glen Ellyn home. A handwritten reflection describing how they spent their free time and connected virtually with loved ones.

“If you go (through) a time like this,” Ellie wrote at the conclusion of her note, “you can get (through) it.”

Her message is intended for the next generation of elementary-age children who, in five years, will unseal the Landa sisters' container and thousands others submitted to the Once Upon Our Time Capsule project.

Five-year-old Calista Landa, left, and her 8-year-old sister, Ellie, submit their time capsule at a Girl Scouts event last weekend in Naperville. The girls, of Glen Ellyn, filled their canister with a handwritten note, drawings, a mask, a toy and a sachet of the plants they grew during quarantine, offering a snapshot of their lives amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy of Monica Lagunas

The concept was launched this year by working moms Stacey Gillett and Stephanie Hodges, who wanted to provide Chicago-area kids, primarily ages 5 through 12, with an opportunity to work through the challenges they've encountered since spring 2020.

It has since evolved into an expansive passion project, Gillett said, connecting kids from various demographics, geographies and walks of life through a “collective time capsule that tells the experience of Chicago's children through this really incredible time we're living through.”

“We know how healing the process of storytelling is,” she said. “We want them to recognize how brave they've been in navigating this change all this time.”

The time capsule serves as a collection of feelings and memories, Gillett said, with templates asking kids to draw or write about life before and during the pandemic, as well as their vision of the future. Some participants have included maps of their neighborhood or sensory experiences, such as the music they listened to, the books they read, or recipes of meals they ate during quarantine.

Organizers have predominantly focused on reaching families and groups within Chicago, including The Center for Childhood Resilience at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital, the Chicago Children's Theatre, the Chicago Public Library, and various summer camps and school organizations. But they've been “thrilled” to see the concept grow beyond their expectations and resonate with a broader audience, Gillett said, including entities that serve suburban residents.

Children from across Chicago and beyond have participated in the Once Upon Our Time Capsule, filling out work sheets, writing letters and submitting containers that describe their feelings and experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. The time capsule will be opened in five years. Courtesy of Once Upon Our Time Capsule

Among them is Ellie Landa's Troop 55775 and others under the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana umbrella. Local Girl Scouts and their families gathered last weekend at Camp Greene Wood in Naperville to celebrate National S'mores Day and earn a special merit badge by putting together their time capsules.

Despite the complexities of the pandemic, being involved with Girl Scouts has provided a level of comfort to Ellie and 5-year-old Calista, who participated in Zoom meetings, discovered new hobbies and learned valuable lessons about resilience, mom and troop leader Monica Lagunas said. And by sharing their newfound wisdom through the time capsule, the girls believe they could help other kids facing their own difficulties in the future.

“If something like this happens in our lives again, they can remember how we dealt with it, how we moved forward and kept going,” Lagunas said.

Sunday is the deadline for anyone in the Chicago area and beyond to turn in a time capsule, either online or at a drop-off location, Gillett said. In October, the submissions will be aggregated into as many as 20 “giant time capsules,” kept at various Chicago locations. Public art inspired by the kids' stories also will be on display.

The time capsules will be unsealed in 2026, allowing new groups of children to learn about the historic 2020 and 2021, Gillett said. Future goals include archiving the contents at museums or libraries, and one day writing a children's book elevating the key lessons.

“Kids spend all this time reading about heroes and important points in history,” Gillett said. “We want them to know, 'People are going to be learning about your experiences. You are the heroes now.'”

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