Girls' random acts of kindness are tool for increasing self-esteem and friendship
WILLMAR — To hear the girls talk about it, spending a couple hours in the Wal-Mart parking lot was one of the best things they did this summer — ranking on par with a day at the beach.
Wearing matching T-shirts, the teens patrolled the parking lot to help people return carts to the corrals in a random act of kindness that thrilled harried shoppers and gave the girls another notch up in self-esteem and friendship that could lead to improved participation in their community and school.
The girls have dubbed themselves the RAK Pak, for Random Acts of Kindness.
Research shows that when people give to the community, they feel more connected to it, said Becky Anderson, who oversees Kandiyohi County's school truancy program.
With the help of a modest Pact for Families grant, Anderson has coordinated a summer program for girls in the 11-18 age range for the last decade. Alison Shattuck, who is the social worker at Willmar's Alternative Learning Center, also assisted with the weekly meetings and outings this summer.
This was the first year the group focused on the concept of random acts of kindness.
"It can be kind of contagious," said Anderson, who has seen the group of about nine girls undergo some good changes, individually and as a group.
"I'm actually nicer than I was before. Before I was all tough," said Sara Diaz-Romero.
The 13-year-old recently moved to Willmar. Biting back tears, Diaz-Romero said she didn't have friends and never smiled until she joined the summer girls group.
People have noticed the change in her.
"They say, 'Wow. I'm surprised you didn't hit me that time,'" said Diaz-Romero with a hint of a smile that eventually evolved into a toothy grin as she talked about the change in herself from attending the Tuesday get-togethers.
"I come home smiling," said Diaz-Romero.
"It's happiness every Tuesday," said April Valverde, a 13-year-old from Willmar who admits she had "never really done anything for other people" before being part of the RAK Pak crew this summer.
"Once I did it, it made me feel awesome," said Valverde.
Sydney Sward, 15, said before she started coming to the group four years ago, she was the "school punching bag," and that turned her into a tough cookie who used to look for negative attention.
The girls group and doing random acts of kindness has taught her the value of positive attention.
"I think I've become a lot more caring for other people and that doing things for other people is good for you too," said Sward. "It kind of hooks you."
Buoyed by the cheerful responses they received in the Wal-Mart parking lot, the girls also made fleece blankets that were given to kids going into foster care and they organized a garage sale earlier this month at the Health and Human Services building and donated half the money to the YMCA in Willmar and the other half to the local animal shelter.
This Tuesday, the girls will help Anderson hand out ice cream and back-to-school information to families at several locations in Willmar as part of a Salvation Army event.
At most of the Tuesday meetings, the girls do a brief survey when they talk about random acts of kindness they did on their own during the week and how it made them feel.
Doing family chores, holding doors open for strangers, giving a homeless teen a pair of shoes and babysitting for free are some of the acts that have shown up on the survey, said Shattuck.
"They've really liked the idea of helping people," said Shattuck. "Seeing how selfless they became and what a difference that made in them was really cool."
The Tuesday student-led events, which start with Anderson and Shattuck picking the girls up at their homes in a county van, also include a meal, conversation, mild lessons in manners and an emphasis on listening and respecting everyone in the group.
Anderson and Shattuck said they hope that when the girls go back to school this fall, the friendships they made this summer will help them ease back into classes and continue to boost their self-esteem and involvement in classes.
That's the case for Sward.
"Girls group has been a big confidence-booster for me," she said. "It's really good for teamwork and making friends."
Anderson and Shattuck also said they hope the girls will continue to do random acts of kindness and that others will follow their example.