When the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy happened Ferial Pearson searched for answers and hope. Her bullied young son provided both when he revealed being comforted by her felt better than staying mad.
That got Pearson, an award-winning local educator, thinking bullying and violence might be avoided through kindness. On Pinterest she found an envelope labeled "random act of kindness assignment." That led her in 2013 to propose a Secret Kindness Agents project to her junior class of Avenue Scholars at Ralston High School.
Doing character-building projects is old hat for Pearson, who went by Mama Beast to her students' Baby Beasts. She didn't know how the teens, who've since graduated, would respond. All came from challenging backgrounds. Several identified as gay or lesbian and were the target of bullies. She'd hand-out weekly assignments for students to anonymously complete at school – from sitting with someone they didn't know to picking up trash to writing notes of appreciation.
To her delight the students embraced the idea, even expanding on it, though for some it meant overcoming doubt or embarrassment. The project took on a life of its own and helped students heal, develop confidence and become like family.
"When you're a teacher you're used to kids saying, 'Well, how many points is this worth?' or 'Why should I do this if I'm not going to get a grade?' but they didn't have any of that kind of a response. It was, 'We want to go further then what you want.' They're great kids."
The story of how the project inspired and impacted participants is told in the new book, Secret Kindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change the World.
Pearson expects some former students – she now teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha – to join her at a signing this Sunday from Noon to 2 p.m., at the Tea Smith's Tower store, 78th and Dodge.
For the students who took on this let's-show-a little-kindness role, the experience went well beyond a class project.
"For me, being a Secret Kindness Agent was so much more then doing the assignments each week," Alyssa Schimbeck says. "I went out of my way to do things for others. Things as simple as grabbing the door or picking up things people dropped. After everything was over I still found myself being kind to others."
When Pearson followed up a year later she found the kindness habit ingrained in many Agents, some saying they routinely performed random caring acts, with no expectation of recognition or reciprocation.
"And they're still doing stuff," Pearson notes proudly.
Schimbeck describes being at a bowling alley when fellow Agent Lance Otto retrieved a toy bull from a claw machine and gave it to her. Later, she noticed a little girl try but fail to win the same toy, whereupon Schimbeck gave the girl hers.
"It was extremely heartwarming to know the little girl would love that bull more then I would and it brought back all the good feelings from the project. Taking part in it reminded me even the simplest act of kindness can change someone's life."
Mackenzie Carlson began as a project detractor.
"I thought it was a terrible idea. My first assignment was to write a letter to an administrator, so I naturally picked the one no one liked, who I just happen to adore. I told her although she is not the most popular…she is doing a great job. I received a letter back saying how much she appreciated the note and how it helped her get through a bad day. That it meant a lot to hear a student give her positive affirmation.
"At that moment my view on the whole project changed. It made me believe our own pride stops us from helping others. I still have that letter. I read it when I want to believe there is no good left in the world."
What Pearson calls "the ripple effect" took hold while the project was still in its infancy. The students decided they needed an oath to recite and borrowing from the Green Lantern they crafted one:
I accept wholeheartedly
To fulfill my kindly duties in the most secret way
No good act, no kindness shall escape my sight
Beware our kindness; S.K.A.s' might!
The class adopted code names to protect anonymity. The students didn't stop there.
"They found YouTube videos on acts of kindness, they started bringing in social justice songs and stories all tying into kindness. All of it inspired me, too. I was noticing acts of kindness, making sure I was thanking people," Pearson says.
An entire ritual formed around each week's assignment.
Then Caslyn Lange asked Pearson's help to fulfill an act of kindness outside the regular ones. She wanted to give a note of appreciation and $25 to a student who never gets noticed. When Pearson asked staff for nominations, she got several names and donations, resulting in nine students each receiving a note, $25 and Taco Bell coupons.
As Lange wanted her happiness "spread out" by seeing people's reactions, Pearson enlisted staff to summon the unsuspecting recipients to report to the main office. She and Lange were there to witness the looks of surprise, joy and gratitude on students' faces.
Other students initiated their own kindness acts as well.
"Even though they were drawing assignments every week they were doing stuff on their own in addition to that," Pearson says admiringly of her kindness entrepreneurs.
When WriteLife.com publisher Cindy Grady saw Pearson's posts about the project striking a chord with students she encouraged a book. Grady published an earlier book by Pearson and her then-class at Omaha South High School entitled In My Shoes. Pearson was hesitant but her Ralston students were not. When Pearson suggested proceeds go to a charity, the students elected the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation knowing one of their own, Triston Herring, is diabetic.
"It was really cool to see them vote for JDRF because he was the one who nominated it. They understood what it meant to him. It was a huge show of support."
Soon after Ralston Public Schools officials found out about the book assistant superintendent Kristi Gibbs authorized 500 copies be purchased.
"We overwhelmingly were impressed with the work of our students and staff," Gibbs says, "and we wanted to share the project with the entire district to showcase teachers and students from Ralston Public Schools. Our goal is to share wonderful ideas and practices …and the amazing lengths students and staff take to develop a sense of community and belonging.
"The response has been overwhelming."
After a district event at which Pearson and two Agents spoke they "got hugs, kind words and wonderful notes."
Gibbs says some Ralston teachers are planning their own SKA projects. Two teachers with close ties to Pearson are planning an SKA project in the Bryan Middle School homeroom they share. Pearson also hears about teachers doing similar programs around the country.
The project lives on in other ways, too.
"It keeps coming back to me," Pearson says. "I keep thinking about it every time something horrible happens again. That's what keeps me from spiraling to where I just want to hide and keep my kids with me and never let them go out into the world. It reminds me there are good people out there, there are good things, there is hope.
"My Agents realized it feels better to be kind when you're in a bad mood than it does to lash out. They are out there now having that ripple effect to make somebody else feel better."
The book's available online and at select bookstores.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.