A small theater company, especially one that focuses on turning fairy tales into musicals that help children understand mental illness, isn’t used to having a lot of extra cash on hand. So when Matt Jenson, creator of Fidgety Fairy Tales, heard that the theater company’s parent nonprofit, the Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health, had received $1 million from an anonymous donor, their brain began to spin with the possibilities that kind of money offered.
Brandon Jones, the association’s executive director, said the donation came with the request that “a good chunk,” or about a quarter, be directed to Fidgety Fairy Tales. “That is a huge boost to that program,” he said.
The donation means that Jenson, who’s worked on Fidgety since its inception 15 years ago, holding three jobs to make ends meet, is now able to quit their other gigs and work on the project full time. “Right now it’s pretty much all I’m thinking about because we are trying to get things off the ground,” Jenson said. “But I love that. This has been such a passion and a special project for so long. To be able to think about it all the time and focus on it is fantastic.”
Jones, a 2013 Bush Fellow, first got wind of the donation in early June, when a colleague from the Bush foundation sent him an email. “A foundation contacted Bush and asked if they could help get in touch with me,” he said with a laugh. “I guess the foundation world works like that.”
Jones got in contact with the donor’s representative and scheduled a Zoom meeting. He figured the call would just be an informational chat, a way to talk up a potential donor. “We were getting ready to give them our spiel, talk about our programs,” he recalled. “Then she stops us in the middle and says, ‘I have news for you. Here is a donation that’s $1 million and we would like to give it to you as soon as possible.’”
Jones said that he was told that the donor liked the association’s mission: “There’s been a huge focus on mental health and children, especially during the pandemic. They also said that the donor really enjoyed Fidgety Fairy Tales and that approach to talking about and addressing mental health for young people and families where it is not so intrusive and scary.”
‘It changes things’
A gift of this size has a huge impact on the Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health, a small nonprofit with a staff of 14 and an annual operating budget of $1.7 million.
“It changes things,” Jones said. Because the gift was targeted for general operating funds, he explained that it gives the organization the opportunity to develop foundational programs that will help move into the future.
Jones, who formerly worked as a mental health therapist and at NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center, said that since coming to the association a little over a year ago, he’d been aware of the limitations imposed by the organization’s modest budget.
“When I came here, there were a lot of ideas but we didn’t always know how to fund those things,” he said. “This donation gives us an opportunity to be a little bit more creative about how we address children’s mental health.”
When he heard about the donation, Jones said he impulsively left a message for Jenson, saying that there was something exciting they needed to talk about. That was a Monday. Then Jones and the development director had the idea to share the news at a staff meeting scheduled for Thursday.
“So then Matt was just kind of left hanging,” Jones said. “They didn’t know what this emergency call was about. There was 72 hours of suspense.”
Funds not directed to Fidgety Fairy Tales, Jones explained, will be focused on infrastructure, including board development, software improvements, staff trainings and future planning. “I’m looking at these funds and figuring out how they can help us to stay sustainable moving forward,” he said.
The gift also came with the stipulation that the Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health spend the funds within a year. This is a challenge, Jones said, but he’s confident that he and his colleagues will be able to meet the goal.
“It’s a huge amount of money,” he said. “I never ever imagined spending $1 million in my lifetime. But to spend $1 million in a year is a whole different thing. From an organizational standpoint, it is a blessing — and a curse.” Small nonprofits so rarely see gifts this large: The limited timeframe means association staff will have to think on their toes.
“I don’t want to say our backs are against the wall,” Jones said, “but it is a little bit of pressure to figure out how we are going to spend it all in a year.”
It’s not clear exactly why this donor selected the association and Fidgety for this gift, but Jones said he has some theories.
“The donors did not say this, so this is my assumption for why it happened: A year ago, the American Pediatric Association and a few other national groups came together to state that youth and adolescent mental health is a national crisis. I think those alarm bells got a lot of people asking, ‘What can we do to support our youth who are in mental health crisis?’”
He said that he’s excited about how this money will help expand his group’s reach during a particularly challenging time. The need is so great, Jones said. He and his colleagues have been aware of this for a long time. “How do we give out information, help parents, caregivers and professionals to help support their families and their communities? This grant will greatly increase our ability to do that.”
With Fidgety Fairy Tales finally well-funded, Jenson is excited to see some long-held dreams for the little theater company come true. The group, which is led by Jenson and collaborator Marya Hart, has always taken a small cast of young actors on tour to perform their mental health-themed musicals in schools and community centers around the state. They will now be able to expand their message to a much larger audience.
“This year is really about getting more people involved, whether that is artists or partnerships with schools,” Jenson said. One exciting program that’s already moving ahead is the development of “script packages” designed to support educators who’d like to stage a production of Fidgety’s “Three Little Pigs” in their classroom: “They’ll have audio tracks that they can sing along to and we’re making a handbook for teachers that might not think of themselves as directors so they can do it.”
Jenson said the grant funds also made it possible for Fidgety Fairy Tales to set up a microgrant program that provides funding to support teachers who would like to stage the show in their classrooms but lack funding. The small grants, Jenson explained, “will be available nationally, so any place in the country could do it.”
While Fidgety made its name as a touring company, the global pandemic put live performances on hold for two years. Cast and crew scrambled to come up with alternatives. This year, the group is back to live performances, and their schedule is jam-packed.
“We have 25 performances lined up this fall,” Jenson said. “We will be traveling up to Two Harbors and Silver Bay and Hibbing and then over to the Apostle Islands/Bayfield area. I just talked to someone in Zumbrota today about maybe doing some shows there.” While the group will stick to a regional tour schedule for now, Jenson said the grant money opens the idea of performing on a national level.
Jenson said that schools have been able to rent Fidgety scripts for a few years, but the new script-package program will be a way to let even more young people start important conversations about mental health.
This summer, in Cloquet, Jenson said, a group of young people in a credit-recovery program – for students who had missed a lot of school during the pandemic – staged a production of one of Fidgety’s shows in the County Seat Theater.
Jenson drove up to observe the rehearsals. During a break, participants talked about what made the production important to them. “Some said,” Jenson recalled, “‘This is so important because nobody talks about mental health around here, nobody talks about anxiety.’ They felt like being in the play was good for them — but they also felt it was important for them to do that for others. That’s exactly what we’re all about.”