Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Kindness Counts: People making NCW a better place to live

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WENATCHEE — Charles Dickens published his classic A Christmas Carol in December 1943. The masterpiece’s opening stave shows Fred exhorting his Uncle Scrooge to view Christmas as the only time in the long calendar of the year “when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they were really fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

Last Christmas, Gene Sharratt found himself pondering his fellow passengers. The educator grew frustrated with the increasing social tension fissuring the nation. He observed that some New Year’s resolutions soar for 12 months while most remain grounded after two weeks. An idea surfaced of a communal resolution: kindness.

These ruminations inspired Kindness Counts North Central Washington, a one-year campaign designed to inspire, recognize, and contribute to acts of kindness. The organization is not a 501(c)(3) and does not accept donations. “We’re just a group of people who want to make our community a better place to live,” Sharratt said. “We have a lot more in common than we have differences, regardless of our political affiliation, our religious affiliation, or any other demographic. So, why don’t we try to raise a voice around commonalities and build bridges in community, state and nation rather than build barriers?”

Before fully fueling this notion, Sharratt desired to define his terms. What is kindness? The campaign described it as “the quality of being friendly, generous and considerate.”

His initial research found that February 17 is National Random Acts of Kindness Day. Using that date as a launching point, he gathered a kindness brain trust to gauge the idea’s merits which included Margie Kerr, local Make a Difference Day founder, Dave Herald, owner-partner of Sunny FM, Linda Haglund, Executive Director at Wenatchee Downtown Association, Rufus Woods, publisher emeritus of the Wenatchee World and Laurel Helton. The friends met twice monthly to refine goals. Sharratt contacted the mayors of Wenatchee, East Wenatchee, Chelan, Cashmere and Moses Lake. They all responded with official city proclamations.

“It’s easy to get caught up in negative news and dwell on those stories. The ugly feeling of what is wrong in the world tends to take over your life, interrupting your thoughts, affecting your relationships, and controlling your attitude,” East Wenatchee Mayor Jarrilea Crawford said. “I believe what the Kindness Counts committee is trying to do is make kindness contagious and infect the whole valley with it.”

Other kindness ambassadors were Mike Cooney, former mayor of Chelan, Rafael Aguilar, local radio personality, Dominick Bonny of Digital Media Northwest, and civic volunteers including Melanie McQuaig, Kris Cameron and Abbie Gunderson.

The campaign collects local acts of kindness on kindnesscountsncw.com and a drop box at Pybus Public Market. The group promotes these stories on their website and social media accounts. Sharratt emphasized that the site promotes small everyday gestures including returning one’s shopping cart and opening the door for a stranger.

During the July 20 meeting at the North Central Washington Community Foundation, attendees shared stories of kindness from around the valley. That included Wenatchee High School students Kirsten Jarmin and Izzie Brown, the president and vice president of the school’s Random Acts of Kindness Club. Kory Kalahar, Superintendent of the Wenatchee School District, also encouraged the group.

“If we all can be kinder than necessary, we will be good stewards of our community,” Kalahar said.

Retired art teacher Terry Valdez and his daughter Claire spoke about the progress of their Art Cart. The father-daughter pair sets up free watercolor painting lessons in local parks which has attracted many passersby. They will host the next Art Cart on Aug. 9 from 2-4 p.m. at Wenatchee’s Rotary Park.

The positive energy of Sharratt’s brainstorming has electrified the community. Several groups have paid forward kindness including Link Transit and the Wenatchee Valley Senior Activity Center. Local high schools have started kindness clubs while established groups have furthered their efforts. At Vale Elementary in Cashmere, students wrote nearly 1,400 “Happy Letters” to encourage their recipients, including 600 written to veterans last November. 

Sharratt has seen the need for general benevolence during his decades in public education. He worked in K-12 schools for 30 years and been the Superintendent of North Central Education services, a professor at Washington State University and the Executive Director of the Washington Student Achievement Council. Currently he is the senior research advisor for the Center of Education Effectiveness. Considering the aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sharratt feels the responsibility to mirror kindness for younger generations.

“As an educator I want to make sure we as adults model the kind of behavior, we expect our young people to have going forward like civility, thoughtfulness,” he said. 

When Sharratt asked Cooney to join the initiative, the two bonded quickly. Cooney believes small acts of kindness contain high mileage and that the country has overcome greater obstacles than the current disagreements.

“I don’t think you go in this to see any bar charts showing kindness is up 10 percent,” Cooney said. “When you hold the door open for someone, there’s just a little bit of joy that you get. You hope by opening the door that person will pass it on, do something. We just have to get back to being humane to each other.”

In ways seen and unseen, that is what Kindness Counts NCW aims to encourage as the 2023 campaign continues. For Sharratt, a silent Christmas thought has evolved into a community endeavor he hopes will have lasting effects throughout the long calendar of this year and beyond.

“We cannot exist as a community, we can’t prosper as a state or as a nation if we can’t come around to honoring diverse points of view without fear and anger,” Sharratt said. “Kindness is free. It doesn’t cost anything. You don’t have to be wealthy to be kind. It’s one of those things where it’s just really contagious.”

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