A kinder Juneau starts with the kids

It’s a simple concept that some worry might be going out of style — be kind.

That was the message Brian Williams, founder of the non-profit organization Think Kindness, carried with him while visiting five elementary and middle schools in Juneau last week. Williams travels the country, with the occasional trip to Africa, charging America’s youth to “think kindness,” then demonstrates the effect it can have on people around the world.

At an assembly Friday with Auke Bay Elementary’s first through fifth graders, Williams compared acts of kindness to the work of superheroes, calling the kids “kindness ninjas.” Williams explained this is all part of celebrating something good instead of the usual message that harps on all the bad in schools.

“Students are starting to become immune to the word ‘bully’ because the anti-bully message is so prominent now that, just like with any type of marketing, the more you do it, the more you instantly tune it out,” Williams said.

This tactic is what Leslie Scranton, a counselor at Auke Bay, said appealed to her when deciding to bring Williams to her school.

Williams said principals from the other schools participating in the kindness tour — Gastineau Community School, Floyd Dryden and Dzantik’i Heeni middle schools, Glacier Valley and Riverbend Elementary schools — pooled funds from their budget to bring Wililams and the Think Kindness campaign to their schools.

While Williams reserves the lessons heavily laced with jokes for the younger crowds, getting to the heart of the matter is something he doesn’t shy away from with older students.

At Floyd Dryden on Thursday, Williams shared stories about children born and living with AIDS, fighting to stay positive in a life that starts from so much pain. He shared with them stories of joy brought to their lives by the donation of thousands of shoes from schools in America taking part in his campaign.

Ray Vidic, a teacher at Floyd Dryden, said the power of Williams’ message — single acts of kindness transforming lives – affected the students in a way he could see during the presentation.

“He reached 400 kids with this story,” Vidic said.

Williams explained he picks different examples of kindness — helping someone with their books for elementary kids, goodwill towards strangers in Africa for older students — because all students are somewhere different on their journey in life and their experiences with kindness.

“In the middle school, I want to bring more awareness to international issues,” Williams said. “That’s when the veil gets lifted from their eyes on what the world is really like, what their life is really life. That’s usually the time when a child realizes whether they’re poor, whether they have disabilities or whether their family is dysfunctional.”

All issues, Williams explained, that can lead to feelings of disconnectedness and eventual bullying. To counter this, Williams offers more than just a 30-minute presentation to an auditorium packed with students. As impactful as that may be, Williams said he knows the message has to go further.

The real challenge for students is to stuff as much kindness — 5,000 acts to be precise — into 15 days. These acts can occur in the schools, at home or in the community. They will carry out activities starting Monday that expand on different acts of kindness, all while staying connected to Williams who will send in personal videos encouraging the kids for the progress they’ve made. At the elementary level students will do this by recording acts of kindness in a journal, at the middle school level students will collect canned goods.

There is, of course, a prize to get the kids moving. The 100-plus schools across the nation enrolled in this 15-day kindness program are on a race to be name the “Kindest School in America,” but that winner isn’t announced until much later in the year when other schools begin their kindness challenge.

Meanwhile, at Floyd Dryden and Dzantik’i Heeni, students are racing to bring in the most canned goods so they can shave the hair off of one of their beloved teachers, all in fun and for the purpose of learning kindness, of course.

“Every student, and even every adult, they love competition,” Williams said. “We’re using healthy competition in a way to give kids a vehicle to be kind and to test drive kindness. If we can just get that spark and that fire lit, they’re more apt to do to an act of kindness and, hopefully, they feel good about doing that and then they’ll do it without that competition.”

In fact, according to the Think Kindness organization, on average, schools have noticed a 32 percent decrease in bully-related incidences after the Think Kindness challenge. Further research based out the University of Nevada is taking surveys from 9,000 students where Williams has presented to test the true effectiveness of this program.

As Williams left Auke Bay Friday after his presentation, a young student approached him during his interview with the Empire to give him a message.

““I liked how you explained everything. I could understand very well,” the student said. Then she skipped down the hall while exclaiming ”Yay, my second act of kindness.”

Just 4,998 to go for Auke Bay.

• Contact reporter Paula Ann Solis at 523-2272 or at paula.solis@juneauempire.com.

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