September/October 2020: Proactive Parenting

Posted By on August 27, 2020

Mothers Awareness on School-age Kids offers tools to help families thrive

It was like any other day. Stay-at-home mom Kimberly Cabral was driving her sixth-grade son home from baseball practice when she decided to initiate what would turn into a fateful conversation.

“When I was your age, kids were talking about sex. Have you heard anything?” she asked.

The floodgates opened. Cabral’s son reported that kids his age were smoking pot, sniffing Purell, having oral sex. He hadn’t done any of these things, but he clearly wanted to talk.

“I kept driving because I didn’t want the conversation to stop,” Cabral said. She did laps up and down Scottsdale Road before suggesting they stop for ice cream and talk.

“He was ready, but he was waiting for me to bring it up,” she said.

Cabral was stunned. After all, she volunteered at school, was involved in her kids’ activities and knew all the families in their neighborhood. “What do you mean our kids are smoking pot in elementary?” she said. “I had the time and the resources to know, and I knew nothing.”

That was 2007. Since then, Cabral has gone on to found Mothers Awareness on School-age Kids, or MASK, a Scottsdale-based nonprofit dedicated to educating families on rapidly changing issues.

“For me growing up, communication was nonexistent. My family didn’t talk about anything,” Cabral said. She wanted a different environment for the five kids in her blended family. So Cabral took parenting classes and talked to counselors, psychologists and police departments. “I started discovering a world that I had no idea about,” she said.

She contacted nonprofits that specialized in the issues, but found they were siloed into single topics. They only talked about bullying or drugs or eating disorders, and they didn’t start their prevention programs until junior high or high school. “Everything I learned about drugs, self-esteem, eating disorders and depression was that they are interconnected, and kids are most impressionable in the younger ages. Why aren’t we talking about everything, and talking about it from a young age?” she said.

After finding nothing to educate parents and kids on a wide range of topics from an early age, Cabral enlisted the help of experts and friends and began developing MASK programming, starting from kindergarten and going all the way through college. The approach was to educate both children and families. So MASK would present at schools or clubs but also try to reach parents, grandparents and caregivers – sometimes to disheartening results. “We would present to 1,000 kids and offer the parent version of it. Maybe 5 or 10 parents would show up,” Cabral said.

Desperate to get life-saving information into families’ hands, MASK regrouped and in early 2011 launched MASK, the magazine. The quarterly publication homes in on a topic from cover to cover, offering tools, advice and expertise on how to discuss it with children in a positive way.

Launched at a historically bad time for print publications, MASK magazine nevertheless created buzz right away. In November 2011, a call came from New York saying the magazine had been named one of the year’s 15 hottest launches. “None of us had a magazine background at all, and we didn’t know what was going on,” Cabral said. “We went to New York and were in the same room as Bloomberg, HGTV Magazine and People.”

For the MASK team, the award validated the work they were doing. “In the beginning, it was a grassroots effort that literally started in my closet. But I knew that this is a national or even a global need,” Cabral said.

Open an issue of MASK magazine and that ambition is clear. Though Cabral remains the only full-time employee, the publication is polished and contains interviews with thought leaders and celebrities. “MASK is really about people and family, and nobody is immune to our topics. It can happen to any demographic – any social or economic position. It comes down to family, and who doesn’t want to support family?” Cabral said.

Despite MASK’s success, Cabral felt the organization was becoming something of a one-and-done for schools. MASK would go in and do a program about bullying or drug prevention but not truly make change. “Five years ago, I went to my board and said, ‘Listen, I do this to save a life, and this isn’t working.'”

As a result, in addition to the magazine, they created the MASK E3 Institute, a comprehensive, multi-year program designed to engage, educate and empower. With content provided in a video-based format, the Institute offers preschool to college-age kids tools to cope with a number of issues, including peer pressure, technological challenges, self-esteem and boundaries.

Built to meet educational standards, the E3 curriculum has been in a pilot phase for three years at Norterra Canyon, a K-8 school in the Deer Valley Unified School District. “The teachers love it,” said Mary Smitten, a teacher at the school. “The lessons come for us laid out beautifully. So we start at the beginning of the book and work our way through.”

Smitten recounts an incident on a school bus last year as evidence that the lessons are taking hold. “A middle-school student was bullying another student and her friends stood up and spoke out – that was the language they used. That’s the MASK language: ‘stand up, speak up’ about what is wrong.”

Naturally, middle-schoolers being middle-schoolers, eye-rolls are common during MASK’s lessons, but Smitten says they are changing the school’s culture. “If you watch students on the playground or hear them in the cafeteria, you can see them using the tools they’ve learned. In their own teen way, they’re absorbing the information,” she said.

Which may have life-saving consequences. A lesson on cyberbullying opened students’ eyes to the information they share online. People need to set some ground rules for staying safe online, especially in light of what can happen. MASK told the story of a stalker who tracked a girl down in person after seeing her school sweatshirt in her room while Facetiming with her. “It was eye-opening for them to learn they need to be careful about the images they show and what stalkers and cyberbullies pick up on. They were shocked,” Smitten said.

The students aren’t the only ones learning new things from the E3 Institute. An older, very conservative teacher had to broach the topic of sexting with her class during the first weeks of school.

“She’s from a generation where you don’t even say the word sex and she struggled with the lesson,” Smitten said. “But it shocked her how much the kids needed the information. It also created a great bond because they got through that tough topic right off the bat and she had the best conversations with her students for the rest of the year.”

Those kinds of bonds allow teachers to impact students’ lives in tangible ways. MASK taught one teacher the warning signs to look for in students from vulnerable populations. When she noticed a middle-schooler struggling with his sexual identity, she knew from MASK lessons that there are resources for kids that are easy to access. She helped him do just that.

 “We watched this kid’s whole attitude change from having his head down and dragging his feet to being bouncy and joyful,” Smitten said. “His whole demeanor changed because he became comfortable with whatever choice he needed to make – because he had support.”

The support doesn’t end there. Teachers at Norterra Canyon have put students on suicide watch because they now have the toolbox to know what to watch for. And students feel more comfortable talking to teachers because they’ve had difficult conversations in class and know their teachers are open to having those conversations.

But it’s a big world out there – and now that the pilot is complete, MASK plans to offer the E3 Institute to schools, clubs, domestic violence shelters, foster care agencies and other organizations across the country. “The program is so universal,” Cabral said. “It’s not just talking about bullying and drugs. It’s life skills and social-emotional learning that every child needs.”

In an effort to get MASK’s lessons into even more hands, MASK launched the MASKMatters app last October. Built for parents, teachers and children from elementary school through college, the free bilingual app now makes the MASK curriculum accessible to anyone.

“We want to do that heavy lifting for parents,” Cabral said. “It takes education and staying up to date on this ever-changing landscape that we are raising children in today.”

Cabral’s children are now 16 to 26, so she’s had her own test lab at home. “I’ve used everything that we have. We use the methods, the conversations. It’s who we are,” she said.

Still, between the ever-expanding reach of technology and the threat of COVID-19, she concedes that parenting is harder than ever. “I can’t believe how technology has hijacked our kids,” Cabral said. “My oldest is 26. When he was a teenager, Facebook and MySpace were just starting, but it didn’t consume our kids. We used to teach parents to keep bad influences out of the house. Now you have a device that’s bringing all of that in. The stress, the drama, the sexting – it’s too much.”

MASK counsels parents to monitor, set boundaries and put time limits on technology for children’s well-being. “It is so out of control if you don’t stay part of it. I tell my kids this is an adult device that I am letting them use. At any time, I’m going to know their passwords and do phone checks,” Cabral said. “It’s not like if they do something wrong, you shame them – it’s an opportunity to teach them. If you do that with judgment, you’re missing the whole opportunity a mistake is giving you to teach them.”

Meanwhile, COVID-19 is presenting a host of new challenges for families, made worse by social isolation. “As kids, connection is such a big part of their growth and development. They’re kind of being robbed of that right now,” Cabral said. Vaping is out of control, and substance abuse is up. More kids are turning to opioids and other pills parents have in their medicine cabinets. “Kids are stressed,” Cabral said.

To help in this uncertain time, MASK encourages replacing fear with family time. “The level of stress that this generation is being brought up in is not healthy,” Cabral said. “If we can learn to make family time important and not just live under the same roof, but really engage, that is important. We have to, as parents, create that safe environment for them, because structure equals safety and security.”

As a new, very different, school year unfolds at Norterra Canyon, Mary Smitten sees the kids leaning on the MASK programming they’ve learned in previous years. “They’re talking about making friends and they’re using language they learned in kindergarten,” she said.

They’ll need the tools and language more than ever. “You can see kids crying out for that personal connection. Kids that are normally bubbly, lose their enthusiasm partway through,” Smitten said. “They are feeling alone and isolated. They need this toolkit that MASK provides. We can’t be there with them every minute of the day, so they need to know where to get the tools to feel they have some control in a time when no one has control.”

Even in a pandemic, with its digital curriculum, magazine and parenting app, MASK stands ready to help both kids and parents. That’s what Kimberly Cabral has wanted and worked for since the day she had that eye-opening conversation with her son. MASK provides a host of resources for families to educate their kids on issues that change by the day – they just have to use them.

“People can log in and learn on our digital platform and tell people about it. They can subscribe to the magazine or download the app. There are many ways people can help. But mostly, they can help by helping their own family,” Cabral said.

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Karen Werner

About Karen Werner

Karen Werner is the editor of Frontdoors Media. She is a writer, editor and media consultant. She has interned at The New Yorker, worked at Parents Magazine, edited five books and founded several local magazines. Her work has appeared in Sunset, Mental Floss and the Saturday Evening Post.