The Gene Leahy Mall was scattered with donated hats, scarves, sweaters and jackets, all for the taking.
It was not a fashion statement but rather a random act of kindness Sunday by a group that calls itself the Secret Kindness Agents.
The group originated with Ferial Pearson, now an assistant professor in the University of Nebraska at Omaha College of Education. Pearson created the concept of Secret Kindness Agents while a teacher at Ralston High School with her class of juniors.
For the past few years now, she said, Secret Kindness Agents from all over Omaha have strung up winter clothing items in the mall in downtown Omaha, a charitable act for which a city permit is required.
“I was just expecting a few to help, and it was 150 people who showed up that first time,” Pearson said. “We’ve seen a lot of people congregate there who seem to be without coats and needing assistance. We only have the permit for a week, and when we went back to harvest the leftovers, there was hardly anything.”
As a mother and an educator, she was hit hard by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 and was moved to ask her students: Could a simple act of kindness change someone’s life?
“It came from determination not to be hopeless, wanting to take control over a pretty miserable situation,” Pearson said.
Pearson’s students became Secret Kindness Agents, each with their own agent name, anonymously committing acts of kindness in an attempt to alter their school’s environment.
Eventually the group drew attention and Omaha’s WriteLife Publishing approached Pearson, offering to publish a collection of their kind acts.
The book, called “Secret Kindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change the World,” is a sort of how-to by the original “agents” on performing acts of kindness in a community.
The program has now been implemented in more than 400 schools internationally, Pearson said. It’s been featured on Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation website, on the Hallmark Channel, in SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance Magazine and in Pearson’s TEDx Omaha talk.
Though she’s glad the population of kindness agents is growing, Pearson said she and her students were never in it for the credit, and the recognition can sometimes be uncomfortable.
“It was not supposed to go beyond the classroom of 21 of us,” Pearson said. “I feel overwhelmed because I spend a lot of time responding to messages on Facebook or emails. But my friends tell me, if you talk about it, there will be more kindness in the world.”
Pearson said she is currently working on a new book specifically for educators featuring chapters by teachers and school counselors who have implemented the project in different contexts.
The new book, Pearson said, will also be partly about her research on kindness education and what the impact of the project has been on her students.
A few things, however, are non-negotiable when adapting the project, Pearson said.
“Everyone gets a name (even the teacher), it becomes a habit and there is some sort of reflection involved throughout the process.”
Pearson credits her Ralston students as the true founders of the project in 2013. It was her students, she said, who made the project so successful.
“I’ve always taught kids who live in very hard circumstances,” Pearson said. “I believe the people who have the least are the most generous or the most kind. They had a lot to offer the world, and some of them had no idea the power they had.”