Worried about what she sees as an “empathy crisis,” Utah first lady Abby Cox on Tuesday asked Utahns to “show up” and join her in working to improve their communities.
Cox will focus on helping students and teachers build life skills, supporting foster care children and their families, expanding the state’s Special Olympics Unified Sports program and completing service projects across the state, she said.
“‘Show up’ is a rallying cry,” she said at a news conference. “It’s about encouraging Utahns everywhere to reach out wherever they are and however they lift others, serve others and be willing to learn and appreciate different points of view. It’s about showing up where you can with open hearts, empathy and compassion for everyone. It’s about being brave enough to be there for others.”
Here are the four things Cox has promised to do as part of her “Show Up” initiative:
1. Help students and teachers learn life skills
Utah’s students are facing “more challenges than ever,” Cox said Tuesday, from bullying to technology addiction to the state’s suicide rate. But she said they lack the “skills needed to resolve conflict and self manage.”
Cox said she will help students and teachers across the state learn how to be socially and emotionally aware, gain relationship skills, resolve conflict and take responsibility for their actions.
To do that, she said, she plans to work with the state superintendent and others in education to hold a conference to train teachers on emotional intelligence and “best practices for empowering their students.”
Teaching students these skills will help them not only emotionally but also academically, she said, noting research that has shown this type of training can increase academic achievement by an average of 11 percentage points.
“It also increases pro-social behavior such as kindness, sharing and empathy, improves student attitudes toward school, and reduces depression and stress among students,” she said. “It can have a lasting, positive effect up to 18 years later.”
State Superintendent Sydnee Dixon said Tuesday that students across the state continue to deal with the ramifications of the pandemic, among other preexisting issues, and said there’s “plenty of work” to do around improving social and emotional learning in schools.
[Read more: COVID-19 is fueling innovation in Utah schools to help students focus and cope]
“I so appreciate that the first lady sees the importance of this part of our school success,” she said during the news conference. “Part of our mission is to ensure that students succeed and lead. And it’s not just about the academics, but it’s about their mental and social well-being as well.”
2. Support Utah foster children and families
Foster children over the age of 8 are among the “most vulnerable” groups in the state, Cox said, explaining why she will also focus on supporting Utah’s foster children and their families.
Children who age out of the system without an adoption are more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, to experience homelessness, and to die by suicide, she said.
“I learned in Utah in 2020 we had 123 of these vulnerable youth age out of the system without an adoptive family,” she said. “My heart breaks at this statistic and I feel desperate to help.”
Cox said she plans to launch a public education awareness campaign to encourage more Utah families to participate in the foster care system. It will “spotlight the need for more families to step forward to adopt our waiting children,” she said.
The awareness campaign will also educate Utahns about the existing resources available for foster families, she said.
She did not propose any increase in state support for families. The standard foster parent reimbursement “sometimes is not sufficient,” said Dan Webster, director of foster-adoptive family recruitment for the nonprofit Utah Foster Care, in calling last year for more Utah families to care for children. While there are frequent attempts in the Utah Legislature to increase the reimbursement amount, “that process is difficult,” Webster said.
Cox called Tuesday on those who may not want to serve as foster parents to help support those families who do, through a new program creating a “care community” in which people can “adopt the adopted family.”
“The concept is that a foster family has several families that wrap around that family to help them,” she said. “You can spend a little time each week bringing a meal, folding laundry, mowing the lawn, or taking a child to an appointment for this family.”
Tracy Gruber, executive director of the Utah Department of Human Services, said she hoped the initiatives would help foster children in the state find a “safe and loving home.” The public awareness campaign will be done in conjunction with the nonprofit America’s Kids Belong.
Cox and others put together 1,500 thank you kits for Utah’s foster families on Tuesday. The kits included gift cards, business discounts, coupons for free haircuts and activity center tickets, among other items.
3. Expanding the Special Olympics
Cox, who has a degree from Utah State University in special education, said she also wants to use her platform to provide more students the opportunity to participate in the Special Olympics Unified Sports program.
That program, she said, “joins people with and without intellectual and physical disabilities on the same sports teams,” which can help reduce “preconceptions and false ideas.”
“Unified Sports was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding,” she said. “Unified Sports provides opportunities for children throughout Utah to learn empathy, love and social inclusion.”
Utah’s program is relatively small, and Cox said she plans to extend it to additional schools, in part by calling on businesses in the state to sponsor the activities. She said she will also work with the Utah High School Activities Association (UHSAA) to include more sports.
Unified Sports offers soccer, basketball and track programs in 15 of 44 Utah school districts, said Scott Weaver, president and CEO of Special Olympics Utah. Those programs are run in conjunction with the UHSAA, and the group also partners with elementary schools.
“This is a good start,” he said, “but it’s only scratching the surface on the number of students that could take part in this program. I’m excited to have you and your commitment to help us share the story of Unified Champion Schools, Unified Sports and the benefits students, teachers and administrators can receive through participation. And with 1,760 elementary, middle and high schools in Utah, there’s much work to be done.”
4. Create service opportunities
Cox said she also plans to partner with the governor’s office to complete quarterly service projects across the state, including ones organized by outside groups, and will measure outcomes based on hours of service or pounds of food collected.
“The perfect way to combat the empathy crisis,” she said, “is to serve together.”
Cox noted that Utah already has a culture of service, with one of the highest rates of volunteerism in the nation, but said she wanted to “encourage service throughout the state as a way of life.”
LaDawn Stoddard, director of UServeUtah, struck a similar chord, saying that while Utah does a “pretty good job,” residents could do even more.
“What I want to challenge everyone to do is shift from thinking about service as nice to necessary,” she said. “It’s a necessary part of civil society.”
The first lady said she plans to announce more details about some of her initiatives in the coming weeks.
Gov. Spencer Cox said Tuesday that it’s typical for a first lady to undertake initiatives, but praised Abby Cox for listening to Utahns as she chose her areas of emphasis and for choosing to do something “incredibly ambitious.”
“There are lots of moving pieces to this,” he said. “But more importantly it’s about doing good and being good. That’s the whole purpose of this.”