Highlights helps parents during pandemic

By Barbara Spector
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As the coronavirus spread throughout the United States, schools nationwide were closed. Suddenly and unexpectedly, millions of parents became homeschoolers. Highlights for Children Inc., the venerable family-owned children’s magazine publisher, quickly put the word out about the free content it provides on its websites and social media, emphasizing that these materials are available for parents to use as learning resources.

“They can visit our social sites and find links to free content, including some free printables from our workbook series, Highlights Learning Big Fun. We have a wide array of activity ideas, recipes, science experiments, crafts, games and puzzles available on HighlightsKids.com, and also on our Highlights YouTube channel,” says Christine French Cully, the non-family editor-in-chief and chief purpose officer.

“Those things were already there. It was just a matter of pointing people to them and calling attention to them.”

“We tried to move quickly, but we also have been realistic that we need to find good ways to support people in an ongoing way, because we think this disruption will last,” says Kent Johnson, the company’s fourth-generation CEO. “We don’t think of it as a sprint, we think of it as a marathon.”

“We’re actively working on packaging other content in ways that will be particularly easy for parents to use in this homeschool situation.”

Highlights.com also features content for parents, including video messages from Cully that provide “inspiration and support during this time,” she says.

“We know that right now, parents want and need resources. That’s our sweet spot. We have a huge library of content that we can curate in different ways. But we’re also able to offer parents some deeper reflection about the situation we’re in.

“We want parents to see that, as difficult as this is, there is a bright spot. There is an upside. This is an opportunity for us all to be reminded about what’s really important. It’s an opportunity for us to make some good memories with our kids, because they’re going to remember this for the rest of their lives. It’s an opportunity to help kids see some new ways to show kindness and compassion, and to help them understand what it’s like to make a little sacrifice for the greater good.

“There are lots of big life lessons that we can teach our children right now — how to cope with disappointment. You can become more resilient and practice optimism. We’re tackling it from that angle, as well.”

Johnson says there was no “hemming and hawing” about making material available free of charge. The staff are all now working from their homes.

“We’re trying to be as aggressive as we can in putting ourselves in the position of our customers, and trying to provide content through as many channels as we can to reach as many of those parents [as possible],” Johnson says. “We think parents are going to continue to purchase our products, but at this time, as we’re creating new content and adapting content, we’re just trying to get it to as many parents as possible, and not really worrying about it.”

Johnson is keeping his family in the loop about what the company is doing during the COVID-19 crisis. He recently recorded a video for shareholders.

“We’re trying to increase our frequency of communication so they know what’s going on and to keep us bonded together even though we’re spread out across the country.”

Plans for the family’s annual retreat, usually held in July at their homestead in Boyds Mills, Pa., are up in the air.

“As we’re doing with so many things, we’re trying to balance hope — optimism that maybe we’d be able to travel — but also the kind of realism that if we can’t, we certainly have to find a way to virtually bond, to keep our traditions,” Johnson says. “What I heard from our education committee is they absolutely want to try to do a virtual event, if we are not able to travel as a family.”

Last year, Cully received the “chief purpose officer” title. In that role, her primary responsibility is “to amplify the brand internally and externally,” she says. “We felt this urgency to get our message — our philosophy about kids — out in a bigger way.” When this period of self-isolation ends, she’ll be doing more public speaking.

“The company was founded 74 years ago by my great-grandparents,” Johnson explains. “They started the company to serve children and families. Over the years, we’ve always talked about being mission-driven and being purpose-driven.

“As I was thinking about sustaining the purpose and mission over the next 75 years, two things we wanted to achieve [through] Chris’s role. One, I wanted to create a deeper understanding of our purpose inside our organization, that would make it completely sustainable beyond all of our current careers. That was the internal. And externally, we realized that, given who we are and the trust and relationships we have in society, we could go beyond our products. Through partnerships, through advocacy, through speaking out, through using our voice, we could advance things that would be good for kids in other ways, beyond products.”

Little did they know how important that role would become as the pandemic transformed Americans’ lives.

“It’s been all purpose, 24/7 every day,” Cully says. “Unfortunately, it’s under these circumstances, but I’m glad we were ready to spring into action.”

The business and the family have a history of rising above challenges and hardships. Three years after Johnson’s great-grandparents, Garry and Caroline Myers, founded Highlights for Children, they ran out of money and had to borrow to stay afloat. Then in 1960, as they were in the process of transferring ownership to their son and daughter-in-law, the second-generation couple and a non-family vice president were killed in a plane crash. Garry and Caroline pressed on with the help of other family members, and non-family executives were hired so the business could continue.

“We’ve been through lots of challenges with the economy, challenges with change in society, and with our business,” Johnson says.

“We had to get through some very difficult times in the first decade. And then we’ve had family tragedies, we’ve had unexpected succession, we’ve had challenges to our business models. So I think for the family as a whole, but also for me as a leader, I’m trying to draw on everything I know about our history to build my resilience and faith and confidence that we’re going to get through this.

“This may be different, but we’re going to get through this crisis, because those before us got through crises, and because what we do for kids is so important that we have to get through this crisis for our customers.”

Highlights’ free resources

Here is a list of free resources that Highlights is offering online:

• Printable pages from Highlights Learning Big Fun workbooks
• Digital play on apps
• Free content on YouTube, which includes channels specifically for kids (see Highlights Kids, Highlights High Five, Highlights en Español and Highlights Hangout - as well as a channel specifically for grown-ups
• Free content on HighlightsKids.com, which features activities, games, crafts, recipes, science Q&As, the Highlights Hangout podcast and more
• Free crafts and activities to do at home, resources on skill development and articles geared toward parents on Highlights.com/Parents

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