A group of 60 kindergarten students sat outside Russell Boulevard Elementary School Tuesday afternoon to celebrate the dedication of the school’s new “Kindness Tree.” Although the sky threatened rain, the students were too fixated on the small tree to notice.
The Butterfly Magnolia, donated by Joan and Stephen Mudrick, will grow with the young students at Russell and now stands as a tangible reminder to be kind to each other, foster inclusivity and bring light to youth mental health issues.
The Mudricks donated the tree to Russell Boulevard because their children, now grown, attended the school. They want it to serve as a symbol of love and mutual respect that connects the students to their community.
“I just only hope kids will be kind to each other,” Joan Mudrick said. “That’s what I wish.”
Following the tree’s dedication, the students surrounded it with a kindness chain. The portion of the chain, which will be added to a Columbia-wide chain, is made up of individual paper rings describing random acts of kindness students observed. Linked together, the colorful paper chain showed the students how far small acts of kindness can go.
In total, Columbia’s kindness chain boasts over 4,000 paper links, or 4,000 individual moments of kindness and respect. Links come from schools, religious groups and other citywide organizations.
The Russell Boulevard tree dedication is only one event to take place during Kindness Week, a Columbia tradition now in its fourth year.
Kindness Week is sponsored by Children’s Grove, a volunteer organization that came together after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The founding members of the organization wanted to “turn grief into action,” according to the group’s website, and Children’s Grove began to spread a message of kindness and encourage honest discussions about children’s mental health.
Susan Heinsz, a Children’s Grove volunteer, said the goal of Kindness Week is to make Columbia “the kindness capital of Missouri.”
More than 10 events are scheduled to celebrate kindness in different ways and help to make Columbia a kinder city. On Wednesday morning, elementary school students decorated part of the sidewalk downtown with inspirational messages of kindness. By the end of the event, a stretch of Broadway’s concrete boasted butterflies of all colors alongside uplifting words such as “love yourself.”
Joyce Smith, a Children’s Grove volunteer and board member, organized the sidewalk chalk event as a way to teach kindness through art education. She said the theme of the morning was butterflies because they are a symbol for mental health.
“It means transformation and change,” Smith said. “It’s to support the emotional and mental well-being of our youth.”
The students heard this message of love and felt proud of their artwork. Mia Bezenek, a kindergartner at The Children’s School at Stephens College, wrote “Have no regrets” with a sunshine next to it.
“(Being kind) means being nice to the world,” Mia said.
She said the last time she was kind was when she taught her dog, Princess Nelly Pepper, how to bark.
Cormac Manahan, a third-grader at The Children’s School, said the last time he did something kind was this morning when he brushed his teeth without his mom having to ask him to do so.
Although he moved schools midyear, Cormac said his new classmates show him kindness and he has met a lot of kind people. He walked over to hug his friend, who playfully ducked down to avoid the embrace.
“That’s kindness,” Cormac said, laughing. “Hugging is kindness.”
Since its origin four years ago, Kindness Week has gained traction in the community. This year, the group of “kindness ambassadors” is larger than ever before, with more than 70 Columbia high school and college students visiting elementary schools to spread the group’s message of kindness.
This year’s Kindness Week also includes the delivery of 70 “kindness libraries” to elementary schools around Columbia. Each “library” includes five books that highlight themes of kindness, inclusivity and anti-bullying in the hopes that elementary school students will learn about these topics more interactively and translate them into their daily lives.
President-elect of Children’s Grove, Kim Dude, said Tuesday that another way the organization celebrates kindness is through lime green bracelets given to students across the city. When students see someone perform an act of kindness, they take off their bracelets and give it to that person, who in turn gives it to someone else. The bracelets, like the kindness trees and chalk butterflies popping up around Columbia, are visible reminders to spread compassion and love.
Heinsz and Susan Currier, another volunteer, said Columbia — with its young college-age population and culture of activism — is fertile ground for a tradition like Kindness Week.
“Kindness Week has grown just as kindness should grow,” Currier said.
Missourian reporter Delaney Eyermann contributed to this story. Supervising editor is Daphne Psaledakis.