Mindy Hunke was leaving work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha when she saw a note on her windshield and assumed, well, if not the worst then something not good.
“I thought it was a note from somebody who hit my car,” she said.
Instead, she found a note of encouragement. You can do it, the message read. It was signed, “UNO Secret Kindness Agents.”
“For the next few days it made me smile a lot just thinking about it,” Hunke said.
It was a small gesture, but it stayed with Hunke. She kept thinking about it. She began to see the campus in a new way. Everywhere she looked there were strangers, and she couldn’t help but think that any of them could be a kindness agent.
This is not the way a lot of people see strangers right now, when every week seems to bring a new tragedy and with it a reason to doubt others.
The Secret Kindness Agents began from such a tragedy.
Ferial Pearson was a teacher at Ralston High School in 2012 when the news came from Newtown, Connecticut: a mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Twenty-six dead, including 20 children.
Pearson’s thoughts went straight to her own kids, at the time ages 6 and 9. She felt a deep and personal terror. She wanted to shield her kids from danger. But then a conversation with her kids about Sandy Hook took an unexpected turn. Her son spoke about the frustration and anger of being bullied. Her daughter wondered what might have happened if there was just a little more kindness in the world, and if some of that kindness had reached the shooter before he ever picked up a gun.
Naive as it was, the thought led Pearson to consider the power in random acts of kindness. She took the subject back to her students, who ran with it. They became, under Pearson’s leadership, the Secret Kindness Agents. They adopted secret agent names. Each accepted a mission to do some good within the school. They smiled at passers-by. They wrote impromptu notes of appreciation. They invited isolated students to sit with them for lunch.
The kindness became addictive. The students wanted to do more. The idea itself spread, too. In 2014, Pearson, now an instructor in the UNO College of Education, published “Secret Kindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change the World,” a sort of how-to book on creating a Secret Kindness chapter. That fall, she told the story at TEDxOmaha as one of the event’s featured speakers. She began taking the idea to more and more schools, speaking to individual classrooms, all-school assemblies and teachers-only meetings.
Throughout the metro area, schools picked up on the idea of improving their cultures one small act at a time. Secret Kindness Agents now operate at area elementary schools, middle schools and high schools.
They operate at UNO, too, where a former teacher of Pearson’s learned about the project and decided it was exactly what her students, and campus, needed.
Mitzi Ritzman knows a small act can’t undo a tragedy. But it can serve as a reminder — that in the face of a terrible news day, goodness still exists. That’s what she wanted the Secret Kindness Agents to bring to UNO.
“To just kind of be that bright spot for whatever is happening,” said Ritzman, an associate professor in the UNO College of Education. “What I always come back to is the notion that everyone is fighting some sort of battle, and we don’t know it.”
Ritzman took the idea to the UNO chapter of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association (NSSLHA) after Pearson spoke to the group.
“It was kind of amazing to listen to her passion for this project,” said Paige Drahota, who, along with fellow student Kelsey Phipps, took the lead on campus.
A couple of weeks ago, as finals week hit UNO, Drahota and Phipps handed out candy canes on campus. Each came with two messages — a word of encouragement and an optional mission to pay the kindness forward to someone else.
They perform their missions without asking for anything back (except, perhaps, a “Like” on the group’s Facebook page). But occasionally they receive feedback.
One day this past fall, they set out across campus, posting positive notes to people’s cars.
And then a message arrived via Facebook. A woman on campus wanted to let them know how much the note meant to her.
Mindy Hunke wanted to tell them thank you.
No, a note tucked under a windshield isn’t going to solve the world’s problems.
But it can make a difference, Hunke said.
“It sure doesn’t hurt for them to be running around doing that sort of thing.”
Since she started the Secret Kindness Agents, Pearson has been exposed to all kinds of generosity. She’s spoken to more than two dozen schools around Omaha, and brought her project to a wider audience through her book. She’s seen how kindness can catch on.
But, truth be told, she’s also seen her share of hate. She has been harassed as a Muslim and found in the stories of other harassed Muslims new reasons to be scared. Once again, she thinks of her children and the world they’ll grow up to face.
There’s a tendency to see kindness as a kind of benevolent virus that spreads from act to act, but sometimes it’s more like a dam, pushing back on a nonstop flow of negativity. Pearson sees the negativity. She encounters it in real life, and finds it in her social media feeds. Nearly every week, something new, some reason to doubt and shy away. Her response is the same.
“It just gives me renewed enthusiasm for the project,” she said.