In the darkest days of 2020 — when COVID was sweeping the country with no vaccine yet in sight, George Floyd had been murdered, parts of the Twin Cities had burned and someone had carved swastikas and hate language into a wet-concrete sidewalk in his neighborhood in Savage — Tom Fugleberg took to strumming a guitar.

After dark, with his three young children in bed, he would take his guitar out to the firepit in his backyard, creating songs and singing them into his phone. It was his way of dealing with stress, of choosing optimism over anxiety, of reassuring his three young, mixed-race children that there was still plenty of hope in the world.

"It was like, 'OK, what can I do?' " Fugleberg said. "I fundamentally believe you have to put as much good and optimism into the world as you can, and especially with the world that comes at you with too much of the other stuff."

During the following three years, those solo sessions blossomed into a collaboration with fellow musician and advertising colleague Brian Kroening on a songwriting and entertainment project called "Seeking Permission: Songs in the Key of Hope." Now, with three of their original songs recorded, they're planning future recordings and live performances — through which they'll raise money to help children in underserved areas struggling with anxiety, depression and other mental illness.

COVID has been blamed for triggering a mental health crisis among children, while also exacerbating disparities in services. In 2020, emergency-room visits for mental health treatment rose about 25% for younger children and more than 30 % for ages 12 and up, according to the American Psychological Association, citing Centers for Disease Control data.

Fugleberg, cofounder and CEO of local advertising agency Friends & Neighbors, was once a member of the Spectaculars, a Minneapolis band whose musical influences ranged from Johnny Cash to David Bowie to Biggie Smalls. That was years ago, but in the depths of 2020, new song ideas began popping into his head when he was taking a walk, carrying his sleeping son home from a neighbor's bonfire or reacting to something horrible in the news. He wondered whether music could, even in these harsh times, rekindle the sense of innocence he remembers feeling while growing up.

When Fugleberg had rough drafts of a few songs, he called his old friend Kroening, founder and CEO of the marketing agency Agency Blue and a Plymouth resident. Though the two had once worked together as partner creative directors at another local ad agency, they hadn't seen each other much in the intervening years.

Kroening is a songwriter and guitarist for Rocket Club (active from 2008 to 2014, then reunited last year), a band that describes its music as some combination of Americana, country and rock. Maybe, Fugleberg thought, the two old friends could record some songs, develop them into something bigger.

"I don't know what on Earth is happening right now, but I've just been flooded with these ideas,'" Fugleberg told his friend. "I don't know what it is, but I can tell you that No. 1, it's cathartic for me. And two, I think there's a whole lot of people out there feeling these things."

With three kids of his own, Kroening also worried that young people might be feeling disconnected and confused.

"They see all the bad stuff, and I don't understand what might go on in their brains," he said.

The two men got together at Hidden Valley Park in Savage because indoor meetings were perilous thanks to COVID.

"I showed up with a guitar and Tom showed up with a six-pack and we sat down and it was almost instant," Kroening said. "I had a few ideas for him and it just took off."

They continued meeting in various parks. When they had a few songs ready, they decided to hire professional musicians and singers to record them, a different singer for each song.

With help from Kroening's Rocket Club bandmate, music producer Matt Kirkwold, they lined up musicians and a Grammy-nominated engineer. They gathered at Drum Farm Studio, a farm-turned-recording studio in rural Menomonie, Wis., and created "the cinder-block foundation of these three songs, which means essentially bass, guitar and any assorted keyboards," Kroening said. They traveled to Nashville to audition singers.

The result came together in Volume 1, three recordings whose titles radiate optimism: "Love's Gonna Break the Fall," "We Can Try" and "The Best for You." The lyrics offer buoyant references to dreams, faith, simple joys, candles against the darkness.

"So let's try / And try again / It ain't perfect here, no / But we can't give in / Let's rise / I believe we can / 'Cuz if we try, try, try / We will fly again," goes the chorus to "We Can Try."

Fugleberg and Kroening are currently working to enlist other musicians and bands — for now, they're focusing on those with ties to Minnesota — to donate material or join a performance. They envision compilation albums with multiple artists and genres, as well as live concerts in small-scale theaters and amphitheaters.

The project has received endorsements from prominent musicians who share their concern about the mental health crisis and belief in the healing power of music, including Smash Mouth lead singer Zach Goode, Doomtree producer Lazerbeak and No Doubt drummer Adrian Young.

"Music is kind of like the cure-all for a lot of things," said Dahniel Knight, a Los Angeles musician and former Minnesotan who puts on annual concerts with big stars to raise money for a mental health organization.

Knight said he and longtime friend Fugleberg are writing a song together. "Tommy and I hit it off the day I met him. He has the biggest heart. Him doing something like this isn't surprising. ... He's the real deal."

Whatever they do, they want every song to be relatable and to express some form of hope.

"The ongoing conversation is, 'Man, this world has somehow perhaps forgotten things like optimism and kindness and helping one another,' " Fugleberg said. "You know, those things are not off-limits. That's the power of music. It allows you to feel something."