ALPINE — Utah's first lady has an "incredibly ambitious" goal to fight one of the nation's and Beehive State's biggest issues.
"We decided to help combat the empathy crisis. We must learn to connect through our differences. We live in a world where our children are watching some adults model everything but empathy," Abby Cox said Tuesday as she announced her first initiative during a service project at the Bridle Up Hope ranch in Alpine.
"We live in a world where many of our children have never learned how to resolve conflicts, how to feel comfortable around people who are different from them, or what to do when they encounter big emotions and face mental health challenges," Cox said.
"It is going to take all of us working together."
She described her new initiative — titled "Show Up" — as a "rallying cry."
"It's about encouraging Utahns everywhere to reach out wherever they are and however they lift others, serve others, and to be willing to learn and appreciate different points of view," Cox said.
The ranch house at Bridle Up Hope — a charity that teaches teen girls horseback riding and other life skills — buzzed after Cox's announcement as she and other volunteers launched the program by putting together 1,500 thank you kits for foster and relative families to be delivered throughout the state.
The first lady said the initiative will promote "open hearts, empathy and compassion for everyone. It's about being brave enough to be there for others. As a friend of mine said, 'You can pretend to care, but you can't pretend to show up.'"
The Show Up initiative will focus on four areas: increasing social and emotional learning in schools, supporting foster children and their families, expanding the Special Olympics Unified Sports program, and promoting service "as a way of life for all Utahns" with the help of the governor's office.
Students now face "more challenges than ever," Cox noted, including suicide, technology addiction, bullying, and higher rates of anxiety. Social and emotional learning is "critical" to help students gain resilience, she said.
State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said that after students returned to school many were still experiencing trauma, "some more than most," including parents' loss of jobs and rising homelessness rates.
"We have thousands upon thousands of students in that category, and we have students in the foster system who are often forgotten in our school system and overlooked, so we have plenty to work on in our schools when it comes to social-emotional learning," Dickson said.
As Cox and her team met with teachers this year, she recalled them opening up "about their own struggles and anxieties as a result of everything they faced this year."
"We need healing. Our students need healing. Our teachers and educators need healing, too," Cox said.
Her team will hold a special conference with stakeholders in education to train teachers in emotional intelligence and "best practices for empowering their students," she said.
Gov. Spencer Cox noted that his wife spent the last few months traveling with her team across the state listening to students, teachers and mental health experts to hear their needs and explore possible solutions.
"First ladies do initiatives. That's kind of a thing. But she wanted to get this right. And those of you who know her, it won't surprise you that what she's chosen to do is incredibly ambitious. There are lots of moving pieces to this. But most importantly, it's about doing good and being good," the governor said.
Gov. Cox said when he and Abby Cox considered his run for office, they "wanted to do it differently" and use their platform to do good.
"And this is the first lady's attempt to be recklessly good," the governor said.
Noting she has a degree in special education from Utah State University, Abby Cox said Unified Sports joins those with and without physical disabilities on the same sports teams, helping promote friendship, understanding and social inclusion.
More than 1.4 million people worldwide take part in the program, but in Utah it remains "relatively small," Cox said. The initiative will work to expand the program in Utah and encourage businesses to sponsor it in schools.
At any given point during the year, there are 2,400 to 2,800 children in the foster care system — between 300 and 400 of whom have their goals shifted from reunification with families to adoption because they're unable to go back to their parents, according to Cox.
"We know that children who age out of the system without a well-matched adoption, for the most part, they are the most vulnerable kids in the United States," she said.
Last year, 123 students in Utah aged out of the foster program without an adoptive family. Currently, 283 youth have the goal of adoption.
"My heart breaks at this statistic, and I feel a desperate need to help," Cox said.
In collaboration with other foster resource programs, the Show Up initiative will launch a public awareness and resource campaign for foster children and their families, which will spotlight the need for more families to step forward to adopt waiting children.
"Not everyone feels the call to foster or adopt, but everyone can show up in some way," Cox said.
The initiative will promote "care communities" — families aiding foster families by acts of service including bringing them meals, mowing their lawns, and taking children to appointments, Cox said.
The initiative will also include a large push to increase service projects that take place within the state — which already ranks No. 1 in the nation for its rate of those who serve.
"The way to combat the empathy crisis is to serve together," Cox said.
The initiative's advisory board will include Sheri Dew, author and executive vice president of Deseret Management Corporation; Tim Shriver, American disability rights activist; Renee Ingles, former professional athlete and community advocate for children of all abilities; Amanda Covington with Larry H. Miller Management Corp.; Jacey Skinner with the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, and other community leaders.