CHARLOTTESVILLE — Heather Toney can distinctly remember thinking, “What if someone had been kind to the shooters?” when she saw news unfold of the 1999 shooting massacre at Columbine High School.
Then a high school freshman, the question never really escaped Toney’s mind.
Thirteen years later, Toney is a teacher. When a similar grim tale of shootings in Newtown, Conn., unfolded before her students’ eyes, the old thought crossed Toney’s mind.
“I always wonder, ‘What if somebody had been kind to the shooter?’ – not only in this case, but in any tragedy,” she said.
Toney leaned about the effort “26 Acts of Kindness” that’s gone viral on social media. She realized she could help her students cope with the tragedy by helping others in memory of the 26 children and adults who lost their lives in the school shooting.
So when her sixth-grade students came back from winter break, Toney started a new English lesson: Each student was to perform 26 acts of kindness in a matter of two weeks and write about what they experienced.
“At this age, they start learning empathy, and they begin to realize, ‘If this happened in (one) school, it could happen anywhere,’ ” Toney said.
The response was enthusiastic, because most were still trying to grasp what had happened and what they could do to help.
“I felt bad for them,” sixth-grader Caden Francis said of when he heard of the shootings. “They didn’t deserve to lose their lives because one person decided to kill somebody.”
Caden has been befriending others – “everyone wants new friends here and there,” he added wisely. He’s also helping out around the house, sharpening up his big-brother skills.
“I’ve been teaching my little sister, who’s only 8, how to play basketball because she’s always wanted it,” said Caden, who adds that he’s also been reading to his 3-year-old brother. “I love him, and I want him to have a good future.”
Caden said he had several conversations with his mother about last month’s shootings, but still felt as if he couldn’t do anything to help the victims’ families. When he came back from winter break and heard of the class assignment, he was excited because he knew he could help.
The acts of kindness are to be done in honor of each of the victims at the school. If the student wrote a thank-you letter to a school custodian, for example, he or she was to write “in memory of” a victim’s name on the letter.
“It feels better to have them honored, because they won’t be forgotten,” Caden said.
Some even performed 28 acts of kindness, Toney said, to include the shooter and his mother who also died Dec. 14.
“A lot of the things that surprised me was them helping the elderly; going out and bringing in a neighbor’s mail or bringing in their newspaper so they didn’t have to do it themselves,” Toney said. “One spent all afternoon trying to fix a neighbor’s bike.”
Rachel Roach stopped in the Wal-Mart parking lot to help an elderly woman in a wheelchair put groceries in her trunk.
“I thought maybe she could use some help,” Rachel said. “She said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and I said, ‘It was no problem.’ ”
Rachel said she immediately thought “How terrifying that would be” when she first heard of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Her next thought: “What can I do to help?”
“I’m doing my part in honoring them,” she said.
In all, 55 sixth-graders participated in the project, plus 12 high school students who are in Toney’s service learning English class. Some parents even adopted the project for their own homes, she said, and were encouraging all members of the family to join in.
Toney even heard of a parent who works at the Pendleton Correctional Facility who started the project there with her students. The high school’s freshman basketball team even performed acts of kindness as word of the project spread on EH faculty’s Twitter accounts.
While Toney encouraged any acts of kindness – from helping stray animals to holding doors open at sporting events – she also gave a few hints about how to be kind at home. Wednesday, she listed several examples of thank-you notes the students could write, including notes to their own parents.
“I don’t know if you’ve thanked your parents for anything lately – they’re hard-working people,” she said.
Toney even did the project herself, and admitted it was difficult to track 26 acts of kindness in a matter of two weeks.
Such a project in the wake of the shootings was fairly unique to Hancock County schools, as many teachers and administrators decided to let parents talk with their children in their own way about last month’s tragedy.
But Mt. Vernon eighth-graders made roughly 1,000 snow flakes last month to send to Newtown. They were inspired after the Newtown Parent Teacher Organization asked for the paper decorations; the community was inundated.
“I think they understand what happened and the tragedy of it, and they wanted to do something to show that they were thinking of Sandy Hook,” said Scott Shipley, principal of Mt. Vernon’s Eighth Grade Academy.
When students reach junior high and high school age, Toney said, they are ready to talk about the tragedy and step up to help. With December crammed with finals before winter break, the 26 Acts of Kindness project was an obvious choice for a writing project.
Still wondering, “What if someone had been kind?” Toney hopes EH students will see that a little bit of caring goes a long way.
“I wanted them to see we can take a bad situation and make good from it,” Toney said.