Like many great ideas, the origins of the Be Kind People Project began at a party. Starting in 2003, Paradise Valley resident Marcia Meyer would hold an annual party dubbed “Holiday Crafts, Cheers, and Laughs.” The main purpose of the event was to extend gestures of kindness to community members. The event grew from 29 women in 2003 to 575 people in 2011.
During that time, Meyer had started creating products and giving them to groups in need like cancer caregivers and moms of children in the hospitals. One year, the group decorated 3,000 pairs of white shoes to send to women in Guatemala. In 2011, the group decided to honor 10,000 teachers. During that same year, Meyer’s granddaughter Grace was a student at Cherokee Elementary School in classes for children with special needs. Meyer thought about how she’d want other students to treat Grace. That thought ultimately spurred the Be Kind Pledge and its emphasis on kindness.
“This is a true organization that started from an organic need and actually from pure motives because all we were doing was extending good to those in the community,” says Meyer.
Meyer was a Spanish teacher in the early '70s who left the profession to work for PetSmart as part of the senior executive management team. In her own words, she “failed” at retirement, and now serves as the Scottsdale-based nonprofit’s founder, chairman, and CEO.
“Being a mom and grandmother, I knew that the best way to get to children is to get to them while they're young,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that kids in elementary school had a foundation for how to treat others.”
The organization began in Metro Phoenix and Kansas City, Kansas, where Meyer’s sister lived. In 2012, Meyer established an official nonprofit following a trip to California.
“We went to Los Angeles and went to several schools in the Watts district, with our hip hop dancers, and we gave gifts to teachers there. And it was really at that point in time, when I saw children in Watts transform in front of our eyes when they got a positive action, that I looked at my husband and said, ‘OK, we have to do something with this. I don't really know what you need to start a 501(c)(3), but I guess I'm about to learn,'” she says.
Today, Be Kind programs are in every state of the United States, 10 countries, and more than 3,500 cities. The group started by thanking teachers and teaching kids how to be kind. The organization still does that, but has also added programs that address issues such as health and wellness and cyberbullying.
Meyer says she listened to teachers and kids to decide how to best reach them and developed projects to do just that. The organization speaks individually with each school it serves.
“Because we teach relationships, we're a business built on relationships,” says Meyer. “We literally speak with every school that we serve, and talk to them about, ‘What are your needs? What program will work best for you? What are you worried about what age group?’ and then we have so many offerings that schools can generally tailor things. And even after we choose a program, we go for a school assembly, for instance, we tailor that to the school. We tailor it to what the school motto is. So we're highly relational.”
Although the Be Kind project now has many different programs, the group is perhaps best known for the Be Kind Pledge. The pledge includes 10 different social and emotional pillars such as “I pledge to be positive, be thankful, and be considerate.”
Another program that’s been a part of the organization from the beginning includes the Be Kind Break, a free online resource where teachers receive monthly resources they can use in their classrooms.
The group’s expansion is primarily based on need.
“We just keep thinking that if we do what's right and do what's right for kids, that things will grow,” Meyer says. “I think the most important thing that we do is the social and emotional learning foundation. And everything that we do is an iteration of social and emotional learning. And it's putting different variants on it, so that kids don't get bored, and there's always something new and fresh.”
One of the newer offerings is the app-based program Move Across America. In an effort to encourage physical activity, kids plug in their age and the app tells them how many steps they should take. When kids reach certain “locations” in the country, they earn a prize.
Another stand-out program is the Be Kind Crew—a group of professional urban dancers and educators who seek to connect with students via dancing, poetry, and spoken word.
“What kids don't need is somebody else coming in and just talking to them. They get that all day long. So we communicate through dance and the arts; therefore, they pay attention,” says Meyer. “When something comes from someone who can do a backflip, when information comes, all of a sudden, kids listen to it.”
Like many, Meyer finds her community-oriented work very rewarding.
“I see a difference,” says Meyer. “We can see it happen in front of our eyes when we give a program, and that's very rewarding. And then short-term and long-term, we see a change in school culture. I wish everybody understood how to be kind. If we can affect the children we serve, and they can influence others, then we're ahead of the game. It's really the kids and their learning that are so rewarding.”