Caledonia — Emmons Lake Elementary first-grader Liliana Barber Garcia returned home from school one day in early December eager to brainstorm ideas with her family for how to share acts of kindness with others.
Brittany Barber Garcia, proud mom of Liliana and kindergartener Beckett, praised the school for teaching students to think beyond themselves and find ways to serve others and their community.
“Both of my kids came home really excited to brainstorm ideas of how to be kind, and those were good conversations we had as a family at the dinner table,” Garcia said.
The idea came from Principal Jenn Schultz, who in her first year at the school had the idea for the December Kindness Challenge in the days leading up to winter break. Students were encouraged to complete tasks like asking someone new to play at recess, offering to clear the dinner table at home, thank a lunchroom worker and write a note to a friend.
Schultz said the COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought change and uncertainty to people’s lives, has inspired her students.
“It was great to watch the students become little kindness ninjas around school,” she said. “It was also cool to know they were starting conversations about kindness at home, and felt excited to share their acts of kindness with others.”
Kindergarten teacher Melissa Vangessel said kindness is one of the school’s main pillars.
“Students at Emmons Lake practice ongoing kindness every day, whether that be helping a classmate zip a coat, using ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ while going through the lunch line or holding a door for a friend,” Vangessel said.
After kindness spread through the school, the idea evolved to extend the acts into the community. Students and their families were invited to perform a random act of kindness and attach a non-redeemable “kindness coupon” featuring an encouraging message to “spread positivity in the community.”
Garcia said she loved the kindness coupons because they provided a more tangible method for her kids to show kindness.
“My daughter saw my friend having a hard time, so she made a card and we mailed it with a kindness coupon taped to the back,” Garcia said. “Completing acts of kindness help students feel connected to their community, beyond their families.”
Vangessel said families took the kindness coupons to the Caledonia D&W and The Vault Cafe and Bakery, and hid one in each business with a gift card attached for someone to find.
Students also colored drawings and attached kindness coupons, which were given to the American Legion to deliver with meal drop-offs, Vangessel said, and one student left one in a neighbor’s mailbox.
As a pediatric psychologist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, Garcia said she sees the challenges of how negative relationships can impact social and emotional health in children.
“I am highly aware of Emmons Lake’s commitment to demonstrating ongoing kindness as a core value,” she said. “Before they leave for school, I tell my kids ‘be brave, be kind and have fun,’ and I know these aren’t just words. There is research and data to back up the mutual benefits of showing kindness to yourself and others.”
Leaders at the school are determined to make sure kind acts continue and that families stay involved.
“Things are sad right now for a lot of people, and this is an extra way to take kindness further, outside the walls of our school,” Schultz said. “We hope the ripple effect of kindness will continue to connect us when connection seems lost.”
Schultz also expressed her gratitude for and pride in the Emmons Lake staff and their commitment to creating well-rounded individuals.
Added Vangessel: “We’re not just teaching curriculum; we’re teaching our students to be good people and striving to model kindness. While things may look different for our students during this COVID-19 pandemic, one thing remains the same: kindness can change the world one random act at a time.”