by Melissa Begley
An otherwise dreary room seems immediately brighter, more airy, and electric. Small bodies begin to fill the space at the Warren Haven Nursing home and the residents begin rustling in their seats and turning this way and that to catch a glimpse of the approximately one hundred second graders who have come to perform for them. One woman turns and says, “Aren’t they beautiful?” before the children who wear crisp white T-shirts that read Kindness Begins with Me even begin to open their mouths. When they do, the room is transformed again. Two dedicated music teachers, Mr. Steve Spangler and Mrs. Lisa King, have prepared the students to sing uplifting tunes and have certainly exceeded expectations. The eyes of the residents, as well as those of the teachers and parents who have made the twenty-five minute drive, are sprinkled with tears as they sing songs of love, kindness, and unity. There’s barely a dry eye in the house.
The aforementioned scene is just one of many that are created as the second graders at Chester M. Stephens make their first stop on The Kindness Tour. The children do not see the beauty that we see in this moment in particular. They do not see two groups of people at very different points in their lives. They cannot comprehend how much joy is absorbed in this day from a group of surrogate grandchildren. Some children may even feel a little uncomfortable with the elderly folks who want to hug and even kiss them at the end of their songs when the students amble up to them and hand them a large delicate flower made of tissue paper. They just know they are on the first leg of the Kindness Tour, which celebrates its ten year anniversary at Chester M. Stephens Elementary School this year.
Ten years ago, Ann Scotland approached her principal at the time, Mrs. Gayle Dierks, about establishing A Rainbow Connections Committee. Mrs. Scotland reminisces, “We walked in and said, this may sound a little crazy, but……” and she proposed the idea of
bringing goodness from their school out into the Community. The very first year, the Kindness Tour was born.
Mrs. Scotland is a thirty-four year veteran of the teaching business, but she has the energy and excitement of a first year teacher on the day of the Kindness Tour. While being questioned about the details of the tour, she only falters when questioned about its birth. “Don’t say that part. That makes it sound like it’s all about me and I started it all.” She deflects similarly in the Kindness Tour video that the students watch on the kickoff night of Kindness Week. When asked directly if she was the catalyst to this ten year tradition, she dances around the question and deflects again and says, “it came about with a lot of helping hands and hearts.” That’s the heart of The Kindness Tour. The kids and the teachers are not doing it to be recognized. They are doing it because to be kind is the best thing we can do.
This is how all the teachers are. Mrs. Dawn Walsh, Mrs. Kelly Gardner, Mrs. Janet Polizois, Mrs. Serenity Daley and Miss Elaine Slattery are all so humble and thoughtful. To teach second grade seems to be a guaranteed jump to the front of the line upon reaching heaven. The patience and tenderness required are not anything you could glean from an education degree. They all seem called to this profession. They enjoy the day as much as the kids do, and are moved as much as the parents are. That’s amazing considering that some have completed this tour for ten consecutive years.
The Kindness Tour is a long day for the second graders at CMS, but a beautiful one. The week kicks off with a night at school where the students and their parents are introduced to what they will do during the Kindness Tour. On this kickoff night, they drop off donations for the food pantry, donate a pair of new socks for the Homeless, and bring a stamped envelope to write letters of thanks to the troops. In the past few years, they watch either a LifeVest video which demonstrates how one small act of kindness can have a ripple effect throughout the community, or a photo slideshow/ video presentation of prior tours. The students love watching tours from the past few years and try to spot their older siblings and friends. The evening concludes with students and their parents working on signs to display on their lawns reminding all who pass through that “Kindness Matters”, and “Kindness is The New Cool”, and “Kindness Rocks.”
On the day of the Tour, typically a Friday and this year April 20th, second grade parents are invited to join their children on as much or as little of the tour as they like.
Mr. Kevin Moore begins the day with a speech. If you’ve seen Mr. Moore, Kindness may not be the first word that pops into your head. At a towering six feet and six inches, intimidation may be a more accurate first impression. That will last about four and a half seconds. Mr. Moore is a charismatic speaker and motivator and before he begins his countdown to kindness which concludes with the entire school clapping the second graders out into the world, he talks to his students. He explains that the world is a challenging place and will be troublesome to navigate at times, but if you choose one thing in this world to be, you should choose to be kind. These are words and beliefs that are easy to come by in an elementary school. You would be hard pressed to find a classroom without words to this effect displayed or faculty members who are not SAYing those words to the student body. But anybody can SAY words. It’s another thing to live them, to exemplify them, and to BE them out in the world. That is what makes Mr. Moore different and such a great leader to his school. He is not just going through the motions. He demonstrates all that kindness embodies on a daily basis.
The morning begins at the Warren Haven Nursing Home in Oxford, New Jersey. Then the kids go to Trinity Church in Hackettstown. Finally, a few representatives hop off the bus at the Budd Lake Post Office to mail the letters of gratitude to the troops. Relics of Kindness Tours past adorn the walls of the Post Office and remind customers of the value of Kindness.
At the Trinity Methodist Church in Hackettstown, students visit a few stations. They individually walk the cans their school has donated to the food pantry and see exactly how generous not only CMS is, but those families from the surrounding areas as well. Students participate in a presentation about how needy families can get this food and how important it is to be generous to this cause. They learn about Midnight Run which goes on a monthly pilgrimage to NYC to bring clothing and food to the Homeless in Manhattan. Then they decorate bags with messages of Kindness and Love for the food that will be placed into these bags. These messages are prepared with care by the kids and could be the only upbeat words these homeless people receive for a long time.
After a picnic lunch in the classrooms on beach towels, the afternoons have varied throughout the years. While the mornings have been predictable with the three stops, the afternoons have had some variation.
This year, some Mount Olive High School students who are also EMT’s and volunteer firefighters stopped by to enlighten our students about the responsibilities of the job and balancing those with the demands of school. The children were enthralled and so excited to ask thoughtful questions about everything from how scared they have been on a job, to what made them want to become an EMT, to what prepared them as a student to become a firefighter. These gentlemen were presented with blankets to keep on their trucks to lend to patients in need so that they could be covered with something made from love as they are transported in the vehicles. The kids viewed it as their way of providing a warm hug to someone during a particularly scary time.
In other years, the afternoon has been comprised of different visiting Kindness Givers. Last year, John Stark and his foundation stopped by. The prior year, some students from Love Your Melon made the rounds. There have been high school students doing yoga who taught our second graders how to be kind to their bodies. There have been presentations from Eleventh Hour Rescue. The theme of the afternoon is that Kindness can be found anywhere if you know where to look.
What’s amazing is that ten years in, these teachers are just as excited as they must have been the first year. Even though the stops on the tour are the same, the premise is the same, and only the kids change, you can still see teachers growing emotional as the kids start to sing about The Rainbow Connection. You still see sadness pass over faces when the teachers hear, often for the tenth time, about the difficulties of those on the receiving end of the Midnight Run. Compassion and caring run deep with these teachers.
One complaint about schools today is that kids do not have time to be kids. With testing starting at a younger age, and so much learning packed into the school day, kids do not have the time to explore life in its simplest form and to JUST BE. On the day of the Kindness Tour,
they get to take a break from the rigor of their days and instead focus solely on spreading joy throughout the community. They quickly learn that no matter what their mastery level is, kindness is at the core of everything. They learn that, “Kindness Begins with ME!” and they intertwine their wisdom, social skills, and artistic abilities all while being kids. That is what makes everyone they come in contact with so happy on this day.
Students of years past have been impacted by the Kindness Tour and can recall fond memories of it. Fifteen year old Fiona Gsell remembers being clapped out of the school. “It was then that I knew what it was all about…I was overwhelmed with the rush of love that was all around that school. Happiness, kindness, and compassion were flooding the school that day, and every year after that I looked forward to that day like no one else.” Caroline Herman, a current sixth grader, recalls a highlight of hers was “seeing the senior citizens’ faces light up and smile when we handed them the flowers that we made.” Seventh grader Anthony Moscatello shares the same sentiments. He enjoyed, “…talking to all the elderly fellas and singing for them.”
In life, it’s easy to sit back and complain. It requires less to speak negatively about teachers, coaches, political leaders, neighbors, friends, and relatives. It seems to be the default conversation on the sidelines of kids’ sporting events, at the supermarket, at work, or in the living room on the couch. Don’t do it. Facebook and other social media can bog you down with memes that remind you, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about,” and other various quotes of the same nature. But the words are true. They are simple but true. It’s challenging to live it. It truly is, but try. Try every day. And remember Mr. Moore’s words to his second graders. They are for you as well: In a world where you can be anything, Be Kind.