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Fifteen-year-old Jesse Sanders hadn’t spent much time with elderly people before she was given an unusual school assignment earlier this year: complete a random act of kindness and document it with a YouTube video essay.
Jesse and two classmates decided to spend a half-hour or so trying to cheer up a recently widowed man. But that plan turned into three hours that Jesse says changed her life.
“He talked about himself in high school, which seemed like such a small part of his life,” she said. “And it just made me realize that, in the scheme of things, a test on Friday is not that big of a deal.”
Jesse’s visit was just one of more than 100 acts of kindness that roughly 300 sophomore English students at North Oldham High School completed in the past two months — part of a “compassion” project that has tied the Goshen school into a broader effort to envelop the entire Louisville region in goodwill.
The North Oldham students were recognized by the city of Louisville, participating in a news conference with Mayor Greg Fischer last month that kicked off Youth Engaging Compassion, a program to introduce, support and educate local young people about putting compassion into action.
And Wednesday, some students from the school took part in a monthly town hall meeting through Partnership for a Compassionate Louisville, which works alongside Youth Engaging Compassion and came about after Fischer signed a global “Charter for Compassion.”
Louisville is one of nine cities worldwide to sign the charter so far, with 58 other cities — including Amsterdam, London, Nashville and Washington, D.C. — working to join in, according to the Seattle-based Compassionate Action Network International.
The nonprofit organization labels a city as “compassionate” when citizens and leaders organize to make it compassionate and city officials sign the charter or agree to follow its principles.
Locally, besides the North Oldham students, young people in other parts of the region, including Southern Indiana, are taking part in compassionate projects. That demonstrates the reach of the city’s efforts, said Tom Williams, co-host for Partnership for a Compassionate Louisville.
“North Oldham has taken on a leadership position,” said Robin Burke, co-chair of Youth Engaging Compassion.
Oldham County Judge-Executive David Voegele said he’s interested in bringing more compassion to Oldham.
Fischer said, “It’s exciting to see the brush fire of compassion we’ve fanned in Louisville ignite in other areas.”
North Oldham teacher Ashley Lamb-Sinclair came up with the school’s compassion project after learning that the Dalai Lama will visit Louisville in May. She connected his visit to a districtwide directive to discuss culture in sophomore English classes.
The exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader’s talk in Louisville will focus on how individuals can engage with compassion to build world peace.
Lamb-Sinclair said empathy should be an integral part of teaching English — which, much more than reading and vocabulary, is about communicating, she said.
“Empathy and compassion are at least a part of their vocabulary and a part of their thought processes now,” she said.
Teaming with the other sophomore English teachers at North Oldham, she gave students an open-ended charge: Find a need in the community, come up with a plan and document it with a video.
The students’ videos were compiled at nohsrandomacts.weebly.com.
Other student projects included passing out inspirational quotes to new mothers, giving Valentine’s Day cards to cancer patients at Kosair Children’s Hospital, telling their middle-school teachers thanks and letting the school’s custodians know they are appreciated.
A handmade banner to the custodians, which was signed by dozens of students, still hangs in the school’s foyer. Other signs with compliments were taped up in restrooms.
“Usually you go into the bathroom and see graffiti,” said custodian Joan Straub. “It was just really nice ... really touching.”
At first, many students had lofty goals of starting nonprofit organizations, Lamb-Sinclair said, but had to scale back, partly because of the short timetable.
But she thinks that also helped students learn that acts don’t have to be big in scope to have an impact.
“It was really interesting to see how something so little for me could benefit the other person so much,” said Katie Hill, 15. “You could open a door for someone and that could make their day.”
Principal Lisa Jarrett said the entire school has been affected by the effort.
She noted that shortly before Lamb-Sinclair launched the project, a “burn book,” in which some students wrote mean statements about other students, popped up on Twitter.
But after the compassionate effort launched, a “Compliment Project” page was started. On it, North Oldham students were encouraged to send compliments for other students to a special email to be posted on the page.
Tweets telling one student she looked pretty or that the boys’ basketball team had a good game are still being posted. The burn book has fizzled away.
School officials later learned that the positive Twitter page was started by sophomores inspired by the class project, Lamb-Sinclair and Jarrett said.
The students behind it wanted to remain anonymous, though, and to keep it that way, they didn’t submit the page for a grade but did a second act of goodwill for the class.
“The key is anonymity,” said Christina Ausley, 15. “They’re not taking credit for it.”
And when you are mentioned on the Compliment Project, “it makes you feel noticed,” she said.
Jarrett applauded the effort of the students and teachers, which expanded the students’ awareness of others. “The kids will remember this (project) for the rest of their lives.”
During the Dalai Lama’s visit to Louisville, he will give a special address to middle and high schoolers May 21. Lamb-Sinclair hopes that some of her students will be among them.
Youth Engaging Compassion is working on how it will choose the young people in the audience, Burke said.
Organizers also are preparing a “Checklist for Compassion,” which will include examples of how children and adults can act compassionately and a directory of nonprofit organizations where they can volunteer.
“I see a next generation that is motivated by compassion, and they don’t see barriers or color boundaries,” she said. “North Oldham is a wonderful example.”
Lamb-Sinclair also anticipates her students taking part in the 2013 Give a Day Mayor’s Week of Service in Louisville in April. More than 90,000 volunteers and acts of compassion were completed during the week last year, the city said.
Williams said he would like to see compassion continue to grow outside of Louisville, adding that North Oldham is just the beginning.
“The whole compassion work is about drawing your circle bigger,” he said. “I just continue to be awed and staggered by what people have going on.