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Westport kids search for signs of kindness around town

Published 7:09 am, Friday, February 8, 2013

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  • Staples High School students who take part in the mentoring program, Kool to be Kind, gathered with some of the third-grade students they mentor Thursday on Main Street to promote the "Westport's Hunt for Kindness" scavenger hunt.   WESTPORT NEWS, CT 2/7/13 Photo: Jarret Liotta
    Staples High School students who take part in the mentoring program, Kool to be Kind, gathered with some of the third-grade students they mentor Thursday on Main Street to promote the "Westport's Hunt for Kindness" scavenger hunt. WESTPORT NEWS, CT 2/7/13 Photo: Jarret Liotta

 

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For Grace Bergonzi, a senior at Staples High School, one of her most significant life lessons came in third grade.

Then a student at Saugatuck Elementary School, she was taking the bus home one day when she witnessed someone bullying another student. "I heard this kid and he was making fun of this boy for doing karate," the 17-year-old said.

Despite feeling awkward and a bit frightened about speaking up, she decided to do so. "I said, `He's probably really strong, so you should stop that.' ... He stopped and he sat down. I was so scared to do it, but once I did, it was the most rewarding feeling."

Bergonzi realized then that there's great power in being an ally, and that she could make a difference helping students who might not be able -- or ready -- to defend themselves against bullies.

Bergonzi is one of 100 or so Staples students taking part in a townwide mentoring program called Kool to be Kind. The brainchild of four Westport mothers, "K2BK" has the high school students working with small groups of third-graders to impress on them not only the value of being kind to peers, but the importance of being their ally.

To raise awareness about the program, K2BK has organized a scavenger hunt throughout town -- Westport's Hunt for Kindness -- through Feb. 18. Third-graders, along with their parents, must answer clues to find businesses throughout the town, which will have an orange "Ally Power" sign in their windows. Inside, the proprietors will share with students what that particular business is doing to be kind to others.

"We're trying to create a culture of kindness," said Cindy Eigen, one of the four founders of K2BK, all of whom work with the Anti-Defamation League's education committee, and credit that organization as their "inspiration."

"We heard story after story of kids being harassed and terrorized at the elementary level," said Sarah Green, "and we wondered how we could nip it in the bud."

K2BK is a nonprofit run under the larger umbrella of the SKATE Movement, which stands for Spreading Kindness and Teaching Empathy.

"I like the scavenger hunt because you get to go to a lot of places and you get to learn how they help," said Abbie Goldstein, 8, whose mother Lynne is one of the co-organizers, along with Karen Varsano.

Abbie said it's effective because it teaches students to "stop doing bullying and teasing people," which she said can make people "sad and angry."

"It's not the right thing to do," she said.

"Every high schooler can relate to the feeling of being left out (or) teased, and it doesn't feel good," said Jackson Yang, co-president of Staples' Kindness Now Club.

"I've had friends who've been seriously hurt by these things," he said. "A lot of time you don't realize the effect you have on people."

He said that third-graders are at a point where they're becoming socially aware, so it can make a difference to teach them the importance of kindness and tolerance.

"I think there's promise in the future that the next generation of high schoolers," he said, will be more conscientious about acting on this principles.

"It takes a community to make a cultural shift," said Varsano.

"We're really hoping to spread this across the country," said Eigen.