By Nona Tepper
Ten thousand student-made logos, with advice like "Spread kindness all over the world," "Follow your heart" and "Have a great day." Eight hundred neon rubber wristbands, urging wearers to "Be kind today!" A single proclamation from the village of Forest Park, designating the week of Feb. 11-15 as "Kindness Week" which, after three months of preparation, has finally arrived.
At least 20 local businesses are participating in "Kindness Week" by pasting cheerful homemade stickers to hot chocolates at Counter Coffee, boxes of heels at Madison Street Shoes, packs of checks from Forest Park National Bank and more, thanks to a partnership between Forest Park District 91 schools and the Chamber of Commerce.
D91 has also partnered with the Park District of Forest Park and the Forest Park Public Library to drive the initiative. Residents are encouraged to snap a picture of any kindness logo they receive this week and post it on social media with the hashtag #District91Cares, as a way to spread the doctrine of kindness into the virtual world.
"A simple smile, opening a door for somebody, giving compliments, helping out those in need, helping a neighbor," said teacher Amy O'Connell, who spearheaded the initiative. "All those little acts they make a big difference in the course of a day."
In November 2018, O'Connell, a first-grade teacher at Betsy Ross Elementary School, discovered Project Kindness after seeing a Western Springs teacher's post on Instagram, illustrating that businesses in the suburb distributed cheerful student-made logos to spread positive vibes.
"This needs to be implemented at D91," she thought. "What a great way for students to demonstrate the practices we do every day in our classrooms through our community."
O'Connell pitched the idea of Project Kindness to Scott Dunnell, D91's communications manager, and Bill Milnamow, principal of Betsy Ross. The two immediately warmed to the idea.
"When Amy came to me with this project I was kind of excited because the community, the village has always been so supportive of the schools and they're always doing stuff for the schools," Milnamow said. "We saw this as kind of an opportunity to kind of give back to the community.
"It's kind of the cornerstone of what we do here at Betsy Ross School. We create an environment where kids are appreciated for who they are, accepted for who they are, acknowledged for who they are. We also want them to feel worthwhile, and cared about, and loved, and kindness just kind of overlaps with all of that."
In January, O'Connell went on to present Project Kindness to D91 administrators and the board of education, who also embraced the initiative.
"It's a wonderful idea," Superintendent Louis Cavallo said at the board of education meeting. "I'm really excited about this and it's really taken on a life of its own."
Four days later, two first-grade students, along with O'Connell, pitched Mayor Anthony Calderone on Project Kindness. Thinking "kindness never hurts," Calderone went on to designate February 11-15 as "Kindness Week" in Forest Park, the first time a week in the village has been given an official theme.
"This takes a village and the village has really stepped up," said Dunnell.
Learners across the district had spent about a week creating approximately 800 original logos to be given to residents, in addition to learning songs celebrating the mindset during music class.
"Every part of their day is encompassing this project, and it's been really great," O'Connell said. "But also having four different schools, it's challenging on that part."
In addition to "Kindness Week" being a first for the village, the initiative also represents a first for the district. It's the first time the district has come together under a single project, O'Connell said.
She said she was initially nervous about the messages older children might spread --"What are they going to write?" she wondered -- but middle-schoolers treated the idea seriously, penning heartfelt messages to residents.
Students kicked off the week on Feb. 11 with speeches by Milnamow, Cavallo, Calderone and a musical showcase by students at Betsy Ross School.
"I would always consider Forest Park being a smaller town, but it's so nice to see it all come together and for everyone involved -- the stores, the village, the students, the parents -- just all coming together to spread kindness, which is our end goal," O'Connell said.