“Eighty-five percent of the brain develops by the age of 5,” said Janai Mestrovich, child development specialist. That means what happens in the early years of a child’s life has a huge impact on the way they cope for the remainder of their life, yet that isn’t something that adults are very attentive to, Mestrovich said. It’s not just about whether a kid has developed enough social skills to share the swing set on the playground.
Mestrovich, dressed in costume complete with red wings and glitter, is better known as Grandma Boom or the “Freedom Fairy” in Ashland parades.
She’s been developing stress-prevention techniques and curriculum for children, parents and teachers for 42 years. She changed the name of her nonprofit organization, the Conscious Living Foundation, to Superkid Power, Inc. in July because she said making kids feel empowered like super heroes is what it’s all about.
“What I’ve learned from four decades of working with children is that if you make it fun, they feel confidence right away using the skill,” Mestrovich said.
So, what exactly does she do? She calls herself a “passionary, visionary missionary.”
She named her approach “3D Learning.” She simply uses everyday objects as visual representations to help kids better understand their feelings, surroundings, everyday issues and healthy ways to express those feelings. Her game is self-regulation.
“It shortens the learning process because my approach uses both sides of the brain, whereas much of traditional education taps primarily the left hemisphere with cognitive learning,” Mestrovich said.
To help kids understand where in their physical bodies they are holding tension, and how to release that tension, while understanding enough to calm down before they make decisions, is one of the first lessons she teaches.
She does this in several ways. One is with food.
“I want to use all the senses, so, for example, the olfactory sense is the oldest recorded and active sense,” Mestrovich said. “I want them to smell their lesson.”
One exercise she uses is to to have kids eat a pretzel and then a raisin to feel the difference of the tension in their jaws.
Another way she teaches this technique is with music, using various easy-to-remember calming songs. To practice remaining calm in a tense situation, each child will sit while the other children form a circle around him or her. The circle bangs on drums and yells while the child in the middle is tasked with trying to remain calm and not pay attention to the outside distractions.
Mestrovich told a heart-wrenching story of a second-grade boy who used one of the calming songs in a life-or-death situation. She said she worked in the Drain area for several years and would ask the kids for success stories. After three years of working with these kids, a boy who had never given a success story piped up.
“I was a little shocked,” Mestrovich said. “I could tell he didn’t have the greatest home life because you can look in their eyes and you know.”
“He said, ‘I was on the bridge Saturday night with my parents, and they were fighting and forgot I was there, and they knocked me off the bridge. I caught a limb and I thought of you, Janai, and what you taught us last week with that song – Breathe. Think. And make a good choice.’”
“He was able to calm down and figure out how to get back on the bridge,” Mestrovich said. “That child’s life was changed. His eyes were different; they actually had some sheen in them that day. He was empowered. He saved his own life.
“When children feel victimized and don’t have the skills to cope, then there is a pattern that’s created inside them,” Mestrovich said. “Then they become self-victimizers.”
Mestrovich said 50 percent of children suffer from some form of mental health issue, and that there is an 8- to 10-year lag from the onset to treatment, yet 75 percent of these cases are never resolved.
Marla Dentino has worked with Mestrovich at Lone Pine Elementary and the Oregon Childhood Development Coalition. She said the kids in her classrooms were enamored by Grandma Boom and learned healthy coping mechanisms.
“I had a student last year who experienced domestic violence at home, and he was violent in the classroom. I sometimes had to evacuate the classroom,” Dentino said. “The students really learned compassion for this kiddo and really learned how to talk to him and forgiveness. They could continue to focus and engage on what they were learning.”
Mestrovich said she’s proud to be 69 years old and a grandma. She got the name “Grandma Boom” from her grandson when he was a baby and they would play with the drums and wind chimes around her house together.
Mestrovich earned her master’s from Kansas State University in family and child development, and then continued training in the field for many years. Just a few of her accomplishments include six published children’s books, a memoir and newspaper columns. She also starred, wrote and produced an award-winning cable series, presented international workshops, and taught at Southern Oregon University and the University of Oregon, from which she retired. Her books are available online at Amazon, and at Reinaissance Rose, Bloomsbury and Tree House bookstores in Ashland.
She now volunteers her time working with preschool-age kids in various youth programs around the Rogue Valley.
As she twirled around her living room in the same fairy wings she wears at the Fourth of July Parade (she also takes part in the Halloween Parade), she explained her secret.
“I’ve always thought that children need a touch of magic and fairy tales,” Mestrovich said. “I have a wand I keep in my purse. I’m never without my wand. I can get kids to stop crying in airports.”
Jessica King, resource development director at Boys and Girls Club, said Mestrovich works with the kindergarten and first grade kids about once a month.
“She’s like a miracle worker, she has a way of getting the kids to respond to her. She’s giving the kids healthy, positive tools to deal with various negative situations,” King said. “She is really good at what she does, and we’re blessed to have her volunteer her time.”
Lisa O’Conner, director of the Family Nurturing Center, said 4-5-year-olds that come into the facility are coming from toxic-home situations and have a lot of stress, but they glow when they learn that Grandma Boom is coming to class.
“It’s really their last chance to learn self-regulation before they start in a traditional school setting,” O’Conner said. “It really helps them.”
Currently Mestrovich is looking for funding and technical assistance to make videos that would be easily accessible from her website for educators to use. “Teachers are so bombarded with everything already,” Mestrovich said. “I believe the videos can be easier for people in this culture that we’re in right now that’s so stressed.”
Dr. Roni Adams, Southern Oregon University Chair of Graduate Programs, said Mestrovich’s work changes the lives of the children she works with.
“Her magical teaching style meets them where they are and empowers them to be in charge of their own actions and reactions,” Adams said.
This year Grandma Boom is working with about 105 kids below the second-grade age, some on a weekly basis.
Thus far, her services have been in-kind with grants providing materials, books and printing costs. Funding for expansion is essential and help with technical assistance and marketing would also be appreciated, Mestrovich said.
“I’m in need of some fairy godparents,” Mestrovich said, laughing. “I get little amounts of grants to provide the materials I give to the kids and teachers.”
To donate to her work and provide educational materials to kids in need, visit https://www.patreon.com/EmpoweredSuperkids.
For more information on Grandma Boom, visit her website at www.grandmaboom.com.