Caring about character

Kiyel Cartwrite, left, and Gracie Corbett, both 9, make beaded bracelets with words to remind themselves how they will spread kindness during a Kindness Corps lesson at Westgate community Center summer camp. Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Gathered around the stage in the Westgate Community Recreation Center’s auditorium, a dozen kids were asked to finish the sentence, “I can choose kindness by ...”

Gracie Corbett, 9, wrote down several answers, including “help others” and “give hugs to my mommy.” She was supposed to pick one to make into a bracelet with lettered beads and string.

The children at Westgate are among about 900 children in Columbus summer camps learning about local social issues and how they can help through the Kindness Corps, a program designed by Columbus service-based nonprofit Seeds of Caring. Brandy Jemczura, founder and executive director of Seeds of Caring, said she found a need for a program that reaches children where they are, which at this time of year is often their local summer camps.

“We believe that every child deserves access to programming that teaches them that they can make a difference, that they can be a friend to anyone, and that they can choose kindness in every situation that they’re faced with,” Jemczura said.

Seeds of Caring partnered with five organizations, including the Columbus Department of Recreation and Parks, the Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services, St. Stephen’s Community House, the Daily Needs Assistance Community House and the Clintonville-Beechwold Community Resources Center, to incorporate six service-learning lessons into their summer camps, which range from the beginning of June to the end of August.

Caring about character

Aria Remali, 8,sets a goal to “smile at someone new” during a Kindness Corps’ lesson. Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch

Liz Martin, Kindness Corps coordinator, said lessons focus on four core community projects: creating gifts for elderly people in senior centers, packing food bags for people experiencing food insecurity, making gifts for hospital-bound children and giving welcome packages to recent immigrants and refugees.

The first lesson teaches children about the importance of kindness and empathy. In each lesson, children are introduced to the weekly topic through a letter from a community member explaining the issue and their needs.

At Westgate’s first Kindness Corps lesson, a counselor read a letter from Martin introducing the campers to the series. Over the course of six weeks they’ll learn three main points: “I can choose kindness,” “I can make a difference,” and “I can be a friend to anyone.”

“What I love about those letters is that they come from amazing people in our own community who are sharing their knowledge,” said Martin. “It’s just neighbors down the street who tell us about what’s going on.”

Jemczura said the goal was to engage 300 children through the Kindness Corps. Due to a grant from the Columbus Department of Recreation and Parks and raising more than $8,0000 through a Columbus Foundation fundraiser, the organization was able to buy project materials for about 900 children aged 5-12.

Caring about character

Madison Browning, 6, shows off her “BE KIND” bracelet as part of a Kindness Corps lesson at the Westgate Community Center summer camp. Nonprofit group Seeds of Caring has joined with five organizations to help children in summer camps throughout Columbus develop the skills and confidence to make a difference in the community. Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch

The full launch of the Kindness Corps follows a virtual pilot program at two Columbus recreation centers last summer. Malcolm Wilkes, the assistant manager at Westgate Community Center, said Westgate partnered with Seeds of Caring to host a similar program of weekly lessons and service projects. Because of its success, kids at 15 Columbus community centers will participate in Kindness Corps programming this summer.

Wilkes said the program is successful because it not only teaches children about community issues, it teaches them specific ways they can address them — something they might not get in their usual summer camp sessions.

“This lets them do service, but it also teaches them kindness and empathy,” Wilkes said. “And that’s something that I think kids these days need more of.”

Corbett decided her bracelet should read “Give hugs to mommy.” After a reporter tied the bracelet to her wrist, Corbett said she was excited to show her parents when she got home.

“I should have put ‘Give hugs to mommy and daddy,’” said Corbett.

To make up for it, she said she would give her dad an extra hug when she got home.

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