By Sheila Wilensky
For Jeannette Maré, who started Ben’s Bells as therapy following the death of her son in 2001, it’s all about “working together.” Ben would currently be 16 years old, says Maré, in her downtown Tucson office, with clay “Be Kind” bells and a watercolor painting of Ben close by.
Every parent “who loses a child feels a need to do something” to keep that child’s memory alive, she says. For Maré, Ben’s Bells’ executive director, it’s been “creating a connected community that practices intentional kindness. It’s become bigger than bells.”
Her idea took shape while visiting her parents who live on the Oregon coast. Someone was making glass fishing floats, leaving them on the beach for people to find.
Creating random public art stuck with Maré. “I knew that I wasn’t going to do it by myself,” she says, adding that forming clay into a prototype bell was satisfying. With her former husband, Dean Packard, and friends, a back-yard studio became the makeshift site of bell production. On the one-year anniversary of Ben’s death, clay bells promoting kindness appeared all over Tucson.
Since 2005, when Ben’s Bells became a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit, it’s grown exponentially, especially since Jan. 8, 2011, the day of the mass shooting in Tucson, when six people were killed and 13 injured. “The entire community understood Ben’s Bells on a deeper level,” says Mare. “Kindness is a power that we get to control. We can do it. This community was grieving so hard.”
People needed to do something to cope. “They poured in. They brought their kids. Around 1,400 bells were made,” she says. “We got national press.”
In 2012, when the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 20 children and six staff members were murdered, members of the their community contacted Ben’s Bells.
“Our mission is not to respond to tragedy,” says Maré, but making bells to send to Connecticut “was a really beautiful way to show unobtrusive support. A theme that’s important to me is to help people who are really struggling.” Six board members and Ben’s Bells’ employees flew to Newtown in 2013 to help start a program in Connecticut, where they make 200 to 300 bells per month.
The grand opening of a Ben’s Bells office in Phoenix will take place on Sept. 18.
The organization has become much more than bells. “People used to think that Ben’s Bells was a sweet little thing,” says Maré, who’s become a sought-after speaker. After hearing her talk, people often tell her that they feel differently, especially when “they’re feeling broken inside. Everybody needs kindness.”
Currently, free kindness education programs are in place in more than 329 schools across the United States, serving more than 180,000 students.
Preliminary data collected in annual pre- and post-teacher surveys in “heavy-dosage schools show that our kindness curriculum changes the school climate,” affirms Maré.
Last month, around 400 people attended the Ben’s Bells 2015 Science of Kindness Conference: Building Kindness Together, presented in collaboration with the University of Arizona Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth and Families and Banner-University Medical Center.
Jeremy Richman, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and the father of 6-year-old Avielle Rose Richman — one of the first graders murdered in the Newtown shooting — spoke on the brain science of violence and compassion. “When it comes to brain health we’ve really gone nowhere. We fear the brain because it’s invisible,” said Richman, who together with his wife, Jennifer Hensel, also a scientist, started the Avielle Foundation to explore ways to bridge biochemistry and compassion.
“How you’re treated your whole life can change your biochemistry,” he said, adding that knowledge is power and empathy can be taught.
In another conference session, UA researchers noted another benefit for students whose schools participate in kindness education activities: “They’re able to calm themselves when they get angry.”
This school year, Maré and Matt Packard, a UA student, research scientist and Ben’s brother, are offering a new assembly option to Kind Campus Schools. “People aren’t used to others sharing their stories,” says Maré. “People are really taken by the strength of the vulnerability we have in telling our stories.”
For more information, visit www.bensbells.org.
[Sheila Wilensky is a freelance writer, editor and educator living in Tucson.]