The Thornapple River bustled through the Middleville dam as six high school students cleared brush, scraggly trees, a carpet of bristly grasses and unwanted weed trees on the riverbank. For three November Tuesdays, after school and on their own time, the students trekked to downtown Middleville testing out the science of kindness.
It turns out that TK’s “Making it Cool To Be Kind” operation — that willingness to extend a helping hand — is about creating a culture of kindness.
High school Principal Tony Petersen wondered, “What happens when you give teenagers the opportunity to be kind?”
“We want to make a difference, not just at school but in the community. We want to help,” said junior Jack Schneider, one of the students making the riverbank more desirable and visible from the neighboring park and pavillion.
“It challenged me to be a better person,” said junior Sarah Possett, who volunteered at the United Methodist Church food pantry.
For junior Aesiah Luckett, the heart opens when making the effort to be kind, polite and anticipate what others might need.
“It really took on a special place in my heart to help Orangeville Community Outreach set up the teen runaway shelter,” Aesiah said. “I couldn’t stop spreading the word, raising money, filling the cupboards, getting the bedding. And yeah, it’s really cool.”
The high school decided to put kindness in action by bringing in Laurie Stewart’s “Making It Cool To Be Kind” –- abbreviated by the organization as MIC2BK — a program to cultivate a holistically positive climate for an entire school or a community. In January, a core group of teacher-nominated upper-grade students, along with Stewart, launched the effort to strive for happiness and altruism every day, all the time.
Students initially explored kindness and friendship in school assemblies and student-led small groups. Stewart guided them through the roots of empathy, emotional intelligence and social awareness.
“We’re working hard to create a culture of kindness where people feel welcome and free to be who they were made to be without fear of being ridiculed, judged, and condemned,” said Stewart, a national speaker, seminar leader and the founder of Kalamazoo-based L.A. Stewart Presentations.
Students then partnered with 20 nonprofit and municipal organizations to care for and nurture the less fortunate in the community. They fanned out into the community to help shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, empower the dispossessed and visit the elderly, in all of it planting a garden of kindness, politeness and helpfulness.
One group played bingo with residents of Carveth Village; another made promotional videos for Habitat for Humanity; another packaged snow-day snacks with kindness notes for the Barry County Commission on Aging’s Meals on Wheels program. A bevy of students threw their hearts into fundraising for a YMCA mobile book bus.
“One simple thing can spread kindness,” said junior Nicholas Emington. “It’s amazing to see, to be part of something so good.”
Sharing with Community
On a recent Monday night, the high school auditorium was packed with the 115 students participating in the program, along with their families and organizations they partnered with. For each project team, it was an opportunity to share how they helped others and what they gained from it.
“Though we went out into the community to volunteer, we got so much more out of it,” said senior Virginia Webster. “I love this feeling of just helping. My dream is for this to go big.”
Principal Petersen is thinking ahead to the long game, about the kind of legacy Thornapple Kellogg students might make on the community.
“They have amazing ideas and they really care a lot about leaving an impression on TK, especially the seniors.” Petersen said. “Now it’s up to them to take what they learned and make it a better environment, to go out and find a way that they can make change in the community where they go to school, live and work.”