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Students teach kindness, service to younger peers

East Grand Rapids — When Lucy Morris was in first grade, she was “super nervous” to be in the school play because she had to speak in front of “a bunch of grandparents and parents.” But now she’s thankful to have had the experience of being in front of a crowd.

That’s because this year, Lucy and the rest of her fifth-grade classmates were in charge of Community Kindness Day at Breton Downs Elementary — a schoolwide project planned and led by students for local charitable organizations. 

“I practiced a lot and I feel like I was less nervous (about speaking to a crowd),” Lucy said of giving a presentation to a room full of second-graders. “I feel like, since I was less nervous, that going forward I’ll be even less nervous because it went pretty good. I think I only messed up on a few words. So next time I (present to an audience) I don’t have to worry about it being bad.” 

Community Kindness Day takes place every year at Breton Downs just before the holiday break. Each grade level is paired with a local organization and works on a service project together, giving students the chance to make a difference in the lives of others during a season of need.

“It’s a great time of year for us to think about others,” said fifth-grade teacher Bridget Rieth. “We want kids to be able to learn about organizations right here in our community, and we want them to have the opportunity to be part of a service day, rather than do holiday-based things, which we try to be careful about because not everybody celebrates the same holidays.”

Community Kindness Day also serves as a project-based lesson in leadership for Breton Downs’ fifth-graders, who are each paired with one organization and one younger class for the duration of the project.

‘You don’t have to be an adult — you can still spread kindness when you’re young.’

— Fifth-grader Lucy Morris

Before Thanksgiving, the fifth-graders begin researching the organizations, such as Treetops Collective, Ronald McDonald House and the Michigan Veterans Home, to learn more about what they do and the populations they serve. They then design an informational poster and put together a grade-level-appropriate presentation to explain what they’ve learned to their partner class. 

Next, the fifth-graders create and film instructional videos that explain the service project they’ll be working on, so that on Community Kindness Day, each classroom will know exactly what to do. They also pick out books that relate in some way to the organization they’re working with, and read those books aloud to the younger grades on the big day as a reminder of why service is important. 

Motivated to Lead

“Fifth grade is a really big year for leadership — it’s a time where they’re learning to be leaders in the classroom and in the school, since they are the oldest in the building,” said teacher Nia Chen. “Now that we’ve done it for three or four years, (Community Kindness Day) is starting to become something they look forward to in fifth grade; they’ve done the service projects when they were younger, and now they get to lead it. It serves as a motivating thing for them, to know that they have the skills and ability to do that.”  

Fifth-grader Claire Haskell worked with a Breton Downs kindergarten class to teach them about Family Promise of Grand Rapids, an organization serving people experiencing homelessness. 

“At first, I didn’t know how we were going to do this, but once we started preparing and researching, then I felt better about it,” Claire said. “I think my favorite part was probably working with my group to figure out what we should put in the presentation and what would be important for the kindergartners to know.

“When we went into the classroom, all the kindergartners seemed pretty eager to learn about it, and that made me feel comfortable talking to them. It made me feel happy that they would want to help this organization and learn about it.” 

Fifth-graders Luke Titus, Greta Klein and Dexter Luoma (on the floor) and Charlie Baas, Eli Benson and Brooke Marewski (standing) organize food donations on Community Kindness Day (courtesy)

Classmate Jack Anderson worked together with a first-grade classroom to teach them about the Beacon Hill senior memory care facility, just down the road from Breton Downs. He enjoyed making a poster for their classroom, which explained what Beacon Hill is, the people it serves and what students can do to help the seniors who live there. 

“I knew about most of the other organizations (that the school worked with for Community Kindness Day), but I knew nothing about (Beacon Hill), so I wanted to learn more about it,” Jack said. “I also learned that I can actually stand up in front of people and give them information, which felt good.”

As for Lucy, she worked with second-graders to teach them about Kids’ Food Basket, which helps fight food insecurity. On Community Kindness Day, she read a book to the class about a young girl who noticed that her friend’s house had an empty refrigerator, so the girl donated some of her food to the family.

After reading the book, Lucy and her classmates answered questions from the second-graders about both the book and the greater topic of food insecurity. This helped to reinforce the mission of Kids’ Food Basket and why they were dedicating a day at school to helping others, Lucy said. 

“Especially for the little kids who haven’t had a Community Kindness Day yet, it’s good to teach them about how they can help others, even though they’re small and young,” Lucy said. “It gives them an opportunity to help and shows them how their family can contribute to others as well. 

“I think, overall, it shows all of the kids here that you don’t have to be an adult — you can still spread kindness when you’re young.”

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is associate editor, reporter and copy editor. She is an award-winning journalist who got her professional start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate and proud former Chimes editor, she later returned to Calvin to help manage its national writing festival. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio


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