Thursday, October 22, 2009

Area students encouraged to 'Think Kindness' with Soles4Souls

Brian Williams, Soles4Souls motivational speaker, encourages kids to complete kind acts

[from the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune]

MANITOWOC, WI — Kids sometimes act in uncharacteristic ways because of Brian Williams. One day, an entire class of fifth-graders came to school with newly shaved heads, boys and girls alike.

Don't worry — it was parent-approved.

One of the students' classmates was going through chemotherapy and was afraid to come back to school after losing his hair. The students shaved their heads in an act of solidarity, to make their classmate feel welcome back at school.

This act of kindness is one of more than 125,000, large and small, that have stemmed from Williams' "Think Kindness" program, which is in the middle of its run among nine Manitowoc-area elementary schools.

Williams, a 27-year-old martial arts black belt from Nevada, does a combination martial arts demonstration and motivational speech to kick off each school's two-week mission: to do and document 5,000 acts of kindness and to donate 10,000 pairs of shoes to people around the world.

Students record their kind acts in journals. The target is to eventually generate one million acts of kindness, which can be as simple as holding open the door for someone.

"Something as simple as a used pair of shoes is the best catalyst to teach people to be kind," Williams said.

Much of Williams' inspiration to start the organization came from his martial arts training. One of his instructors often quipped, "Kindness is the ultimate form of self defense."

"My martial arts instructor always preached that," Williams said, "always striving to become black belts not only in martial arts, but in life."

Mark Weber, owner and instructor at Lakeshore Tae Kwon Do, followed Williams' efforts and contemplated the project as community service for his black belt students.

"[Martial arts] is more than just kicking and punching," he said. From there, the idea took off with other local schools.

Williams partnered with Soles4Souls, a nonprofit organization that collects and distributes shoes around the world, after two competing Think Kindness high schools came up with the idea to collect shoes, he said. Now, each elementary student is encouraged to get one person they know to send a text message, which will automatically donate $5 — enough for two pairs of new shoes — to the cause.

The Think Kindness project has succeeded in engaging kids to donate shoes, said Chris Carmichael, communications director at Soles4Souls, whereas many times adults are more involved.

"This one is definitely catching fire because of the uniqueness that Brian brings to it," Carmichael said.

The program strengthens students' citizenship and personal focus, said Valders Elementary School principal Jason Procknow, but teachers can also apply it to academics.

Valders will integrate a social studies component by teaching students where in the world their shoe contributions go, he said. Last summer, a group, including Williams, delivered shoes to Kenya, and plan to return next summer.

The Manitowoc-area schools will compete against each other in acts of kindness, but also against the other schools Williams presents at across the country — about 50 are scheduled for his current tour — to see which can take the title of "kindest school."

But Williams is attempting to take his initiative beyond schools, as well. Weber's martial arts students will help with a shoe drive at Saturday's Crime Prevention Day, and Mayor Justin Nickels issued a proclamation designating Oct. 19 through Nov. 2 as "15 Days of Kindness" in Manitowoc.

Williams said he checks in at schools during the two weeks to reinforce the cause, instead of being just a "one-hour speaker." At the end of a school's two weeks, the kind-acts journals go back to him.

In the end, he said, he hopes kindness will become a lifestyle for the students he meets, instead of a two-week project.

And what will he do with all the journals once the acts of kindness tally one million?

"Put them in a glass case," Williams said, "to show the world what a million random acts of kindness looks like."

Written by Allison Wickler: (920) 686-2135 or

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