Counting on Kindness: A Roundtable Discussion

March 2020
Photo courtesy of West End House Girls Camp, Parsonsfield, Maine.

The camp community knows as well as anyone that kind kids can change the world. With Camp Kindness Day coming up in July, we recently reached out to Laura Kikuchi, program director at Riley's Way Foundation, an organization focused on empowering youth to elicit positive change through kind leadership, and some amazing kids who have taken part in the foundation's Call for Kindness, a nationwide movement of youth-led, kindness-centered projects that build stronger communities. We wanted to know what they thought of the state of the world right now; what leading with kindness has taught them about human nature, caring, and hope; and how they feel camp fosters kindness.

Roundtable Participants:

  • Laura Kikuchi, program director, Riley's Way Foundation
  • Ellie Campbell — Project: Crafternoon, a pending nonprofit centered on creative arts therapy for children in hospitals.
  • Hannah Wiser — Project: Womaze, a free self-empowerment app with channels on self-love, body image, mental health, relationships, spirituality, and more.
  • Matthew Yekell — Project: Tony's Place partnership, a homemade meal program for the young people at Tony's Place, a drop-in center for LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness.
  • Sonika Menon and Rinna Talwar — Project: The Birthday Giving Program, a nonprofit that provides birthday bags and celebrations to children, adults, senior citizens, and veterans affected by poverty, addiction, abuse, physical/mental challenges, old age, and loneliness.
  • Nicole Mateo and Amber Rahman — Project: Girl RPRSNTD, a book club and online platform that highlights stories of diverse and historically underrepresented perspectives.
  • Lydia Palmer and Hannah Liu — Project: Building Bridges, a community engagement program that seeks to bring together students from the Nightingale-Bamford School on Manhattan's Upper East Side and the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of East Harlem.

What is the Riley's Way Foundation mission?

Kikuchi: Riley's Way Foundation empowers young leaders to use kindness and empathy to create meaningful connections and positive change.

I know the Riley's Way Foundation Youth Leadership Retreat takes place in a camp setting. What's the purpose of the retreat and the chosen location?

Kikuchi: Our Youth Leadership Retreat is a weekend away at Timber Lake Camp in Upstate New York for close to 100 young women and their mentors from across the country. We created a welcoming space for these leaders to learn from experts and each other, while creating meaningful bonds with one another. What better place than a camp to support the friendship-making aspect of our retreat? It is in a camp setting that a person is able to feel safe, confident, and supported. It also allows the young women to focus on the weekend without being distracted by everything in their day-to-day lives.

How did the Call for Kindness project come about?

Kikuchi: Through our work with teens, we quickly realized that they have incredible ideas on how to create positive change, but often do not have the resources to put their plans into action. Thus, the Call for Kindness was born. By our providing funds and support, these passionate teens are able to make the world a better place.

If you were assessing the current state of our society, what collective kindness score would you give it and why?

Kikuchi: Seven out of 10. While there are many stressors in today's world, both politically and socially, I've noticed that so many more people are sharing acts of kindness and hope. There is a movement of kindness, especially among today's youth, and I truly view them as kind leaders for tomorrow. Many of the social and moral issues that are facing the next generation can be solved with some sort of kindness — and these kind leaders will bring our kindness score to a 10.

Wiser: I firmly believe that if you look for the good, you will always find it. It really is everywhere: it's in the smile of a passerby, the stranger holding the door for someone, the love and support offered in friendship. Unfortunately, random acts of kindness are not as newsworthy, so they don't get the same attention as other news. Even though these random acts of kindness can be seen if we really pay attention, I do believe we are at a critical crossroads, and our collective kindness barometer has to tilt significantly toward kindness if we want to see true change. I would give our society a collective kindness score of 70 percent. So, we have work to do!

Menon: On a scale of one to 10, I would give our society a collective kindness score of five. There are still many actions that we can take to make this world a better place politically, environmentally, and socially. Every day while watching TV, I hear about the negative things happening in the world around us. Very rarely do I hear about acts of good and kindness. Young people, just like me, have the opportunity to change the world we live in by taking action against issues that are important to them.

Yekell: Our society deserves a score of a B-. While we are good at showing kindness to our friends, we need to better empathize with people who we wouldn't normally interact with. But even though our society has a long way to go, the community I've found through Riley's Way has made me confident that our society is moving in the right direction.

Campbell: Our world, just like ourselves, can never be completely perfect. We will inevitably make mistakes and have our good and bad days. What we choose to make of those mistakes and bad days, however, is what matters. Our world is not a perfect 10 out of 10 in terms of kindness at the moment — and we can accept that it may never be — but the best way to improve our world, and ourselves, is to make changes in the little things we do. Over time, they add up.

It's easy enough to say, "Be kind," but you acted. What was the catalyst for your desire to be involved in change through kindness and to be a part of Riley's Way Call for Kindness?

Campbell: A catalyst for me to be involved in change through kindness was learning that what I did made a difference. At first, that fact felt impossible for me to wrap my mind around — the world is so big, and one person is so small. Through my work, however, I realized that even one smile, one laugh, one good day makes an impact on the world. The ripple effect reaches further than you would think.

Menon: My family. Many of my family members, including my grandparents and my aunt, have participated in charity work throughout their lives. My grandparents left India and came to America in 1964. They founded a Hindu temple in Chicago and volunteered their services to the temple for more than 50 years. Also, my aunt in Connecticut used to work for a nonprofit organization that helps homeless adults. She would always tell me stories about how amazing it felt to help others. I always wanted to do something to give back to my community.

Talwar: In my opinion, the most important catalyst is to treat others as you want to be treated. I have seen how seniors in nursing homes and our veterans who are permanently hospitalized simply long for visitors. My research has shown that almost 80 percent of nursing home occupants have family who live out of state. While part of our program delivers small gifts to our recipients, one director in a memory care facility I support said, "You can bring one pineapple and two paper clips at your next visit, and that alone would more than suffice." The only gift they want is a visit, a handshake, and sometimes even a hug.

Yekell: During my first visit to Tony's Place (a drop-in center for LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness), I saw people embracing all parts of themselves after being kicked out of their homes for simply being who they were. Their bravery in the face of bigotry and victimization was inspiring. It reminded me of how lucky I am to have accepting parents. Not everyone has been afforded the same kindness that I have. I wanted to pay it forward.

How has being involved in your kindness project changed you?

Palmer: We saw firsthand that kindness, for most people, is instinctual, and it is only when people face external stressors that they do not actively express kindness. This has changed how I go about my days, for if I notice someone being unkind, I try to determine why they're being unkind and whether I can help them in any way. This usually results in the other person adopting a kinder attitude.

Mateo and Rahman: Being a part of the Call for Kindness project has restored a lot of faith and hope in us. These days, it's easy to feel like there's no hope for society, and yet you hear about the Call for Kindness, where teens like us are taking matters into their own hands to prepare our world for a better future. It's made us want to be a part of the change and to be that change.

Campbell: Meeting people who dedicate their whole careers to making change and being kind was an eye-opening experience for me. In addition, seeing the children I work with has truly changed me. Not only are they incredibly talented and artistic, but they also are some of the kindest people I have ever met and always make me laugh. This project has ultimately taught me about what kindness means and how often we see it, but do not recognize it, in the world today.

What has striving to be kind in your day-to-day world taught you?

Wiser: That we all want the same thing: to be seen, loved, and accepted for who we are. A simple smile to a stranger or truly listening to a friend does so much more than we think. It shows someone that their presence here matters. It shows that the things we often consider "little" can actually be very big.

Yekell: I've learned that being kind requires you to leave your comfort zone, but it is not as daunting as I had initially believed. Though these two lessons may seem contradictory, they are not. Our society teaches us to fixate on how we are perceived by others, so we often don't practice kindness in everyday life because we're worried about inadvertently creating an awkward situation. Unless we are familiar with the other person, we tend to err on the side of ambivalence when it comes to showing compassion. When you are being kind, you're putting yourself out there, whether you're smiling at a stranger or serving meals to someone in need. We need to consciously push ourselves out of our comfort zone to do so, because even our smallest acts of compassion have the potential to make a huge difference.

Palmer and Liu: This program definitely showed us that everyone is willing to be kind and provide support for one another when given the chance. It also showed how quickly people can come together when working for a common cause.

For those of you who have been to summer camp, what role do you think camp plays in building connections through kindness and empathy?

Rahman: Summer camp encourages us to step out of our comfort zones. Whether it's doing high ropes, arts and crafts, or team-building ice breakers, all these different areas encourage us to build empathy and the idea that being comfortable with being uncomfortable will only lead to learned experience and kindness.

Palmer and Liu: By creating a community filled with diverse stories, campers can become more aware of these experiences and build on their empathy. Additionally, through trust-building activities where campers engage in acts of kindness, a safe environment can be created where this kindness cycle can continue. Summer camps can also have discussions for kids to talk openly about their feelings and further discuss important components of kindness and empathy.

Menon: I have not been to a traditional summer camp, but I have been to camps for dance and Tae Kwon Do. An atmosphere of kindness is one in which [campers] are respectful of each other's differences, understanding each other's needs, and are willing to establish connections with others. I think camp can play a role in building this connection by engaging children and teens in activities which promote the spread of compassion and generosity. By spending time with one another while participating in these activities, individuals will learn more about one another and will establish relationships that could last a lifetime.
 

Riley’s Way Foundation

For more information on Riley’s Way Foundation, submitting a project to Call for Kindness, and the roundtable participants’ individual kindness projects, visit rileysway.org.


This interview was conducted by Marcia Ellett, editor in chief of Camping Magazine.

Photo courtesy of West End House Girls Camp, Parsonsfield, Maine.