Imagine the only thing keeping you from going to school was a decent pair of shoes.
That’s what Brian Williams, founder of Think Kindness, a nonprofit group that aims to inspire measurable acts of kindness in schools and communities around the world, asked Magnolia Intermediate School students to envision during a school assembly Thursday afternoon.
“In Kenya, when you look at the playground, just like you guys, you have a fence,” Williams said. “On one side, you have everyone playing soccer and hanging out at school, but on the other side you see these kids holding on to the fence jealous of the other ones. The only thing separating the two is the fact that when you look down, one side is completely barefoot. They have no shoes — this is literally what separates the rich people from the poor people — from getting an education, to not having anything at all.”
Williams is challenging Pleasant Ridge Union School District students from Magnolia, Cottage Hill Elementary School, and Alta Sierra Elementary School to compete to be the kindest school in the country. Each school will attempt to collect many used shoes to donate to children in Africa.
Williams will be challenging schools around the nation this year, and the school who collects the most shoes will be given the title of Kindest School in the country.
“Giving students these types of measurable service projects gets them involved in the local and global community,” District Superintendent Rusty Clark said. “It’s critical for schools to provide a comprehensive education, not just the core content knowledge, but the experiences in life that will make them future leaders in our community.”
Williams, 31, a fourth-degree black belt in martial arts, launched the organization in 2009. As a former marketing manager for one of the biggest firms in Southern California, Williams says the death of his father made him re-evaluate his life. A question posed to him by his martial arts instructor is what gave him the idea for Think Kindness.
“‘What if you could document one million acts of kindness?’” Williams recalls. “That was the starting point for me to really think about what I really wanted to do with my life.”
Cottage Hill Principal Karen Montero contacted Williams after one of her students performed a speech about being kind, which was recorded on video and posted to the Think Kindness Facebook page. Montero said she felt the program was a perfect fit for the district’s new character education curriculum, and invited Williams to speak to the district’s faculty about his organization.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the room when he spoke to us,” Clark said.
“I’m really excited that they are coming and just spreading the work of kindness,” Magnolia Assistant Principal Jennifer Dearduff said. “Just giving them time to think about what it means to be kind to others, and it’s not just here, but it’s globally. Thinking of other people and being kind, and giving the kids a whole other perspective from stories from around the world.”
At Thursday’s assembly, Williams gave Magnolia students a charismatic narrative of a recent trip he made to Kenya to deliver more than 1,000 shoes. At an African orphanage, Williams said he met a young girl named Grace who was sold as a slave at the age of 9, and born with HIV — the disease that causes AIDS.
According to Williams, Grace told him that since schools in Kenya can not serve all of the country’s children, kids who don’t have the proper necessities are weeded out and left out to work with no hope for an education. One of those necessities is shoes.
“A pair of shoes wasn’t just a gift of shoes like we thought,” Williams said. “What we realized was, it was the gift of an education.”
Williams is giving each Magnolia classroom a cardboard box for students to fill by the end of the challenge and pledges to break one brick with his bare hands, for every 250 shoes. To further help students at Thursday’s assembly understand the lives these shoes will be affecting, Williams played an audio excerpt of a poem that Grace recited to him before he left Kenya.
“I was a child full of glory. I was a child full of hope,” the poem read. “... Who will help me? Who will give me some place to sleep? I am talking to you right there, and you out there. Love your neighbor, as you love yourself... We are all lucky to be born to be alive.”
Student Maddie Pratt said Grace’s poem was her favorite part of the assembly.
“I thought the assembly was awesome. I think it’s a cool idea and very inspiring and I can’t wait to start doing it,” Pratt said. “Seeing the poem that Grace wrote to him, I thought that was really cool, and really special.”
Williams will give presentations to students at Cottage Hill and Alta Sierra elementary schools on Friday, and students will get kindness cards to give out to people that they are kind to. Clark says that the 15-day challenge is an opportunity to give them an understanding of the world around them, and how important it is to be kind.
“Donating is a really good thing,” Magnolia student Melanie Franklin said. “I have a lot of shoes, I’m going to bring two or three pairs of shoes, but I might even have five.”
To contact Staff Writer Ivan Natividad, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.