Several days after the shooting in Sandy Hook we began finding bells adorned with ceramic decorations on a string hanging around town. They weren’t everywhere, but rather scattered about like so many colorful musical Easter eggs hidden for us to discover.
At the time I admit I didn’t ‘get it’. I was jaded and thought it was just one more person trying to capitalize on the tragedy for attention. But then we found one hanging from a tree at the top of a hill overlooking our town. Attached was a tag of paper describing “Ben’s Bells”. I went to the site and read the story of Ben, his mom’s journey through the grief of losing her son and her efforts to harness that grief and use it to promote kindness. That kindness was going to be Ben’s legacy. The bells became a symbol that there is good in the world and there is a light at the end of the grief tunnel.
We still have that bell hanging in our house and have gifted a couple others that we’ve found to friends and family.
A few years later, when I was thinking of the ideas that became this site, I knew I wanted to interview Jeannette Maré, the founder of Ben’s Bells. I finally had the opportunity to do just that when she was in the area visiting the staff of the local Ben’s Bells workshop. She is truly just a dynamic person and I’m thankful for that opportunity. We met at the local Starbucks for about an hour, and this is what we talked about:
R: How did the idea of the bell come to you?
J: I don’t have a great short answer for that.
It wasn’t that Ben loved bells. It wasn’t like that at all, but the sort of “round about story” is that I had a really strong longing to do something, which I think is really common with parents who have experienced the death of their child or any significant death. You know, people feel like they want to do something with that grief, but I didn’t know what that was.
At that time, my parents lived on the coast of Oregon. We would go there in the summertime with the kids, and we went shortly after Ben’s death. It was excruciating being there because the last time we were there it was with Ben and Matt on the beach, Ben and Matt playing in the tide pools, Ben and Matt going to the aquarium. It was devastating being there. I felt like I needed to get out of there. Then I heard this story about a glass artist – a glass blower – who was making fishing floats. You know those fishing floats?
R: Yeah, with the net around them?
J: Yeah, they sell them with a net around them. He was making glass fishing floats and just leaving them on the beach for people to find.
I think it was originally for the year 2000, for the turn of the millennium. So there was this cool buzz around the little beach towns about people finding those floats. And so that’s where the idea of “found art” came to me, but I knew I wasn’t going to create something myself. I wasn’t going to do it alone.
I had a little bit of clay background, so when I got home from that trip I played around and did some sketches. I can remember I was sketching on a manila folder, and I drew this wind chime, and it ended up looking almost the same as it does today. A friend of mine had a kiln, and we played with clay and we made this thing, and that’s how Ben’s Bells started. From there, friends and family came over and helped make the pieces. There were just so many things about it that felt right. It was really cathartic to gather with people within our garage at first, making them in the garage, and…
R: Was it mostly just friends and family?
J: Friends and family, but then people would bring friends. Pretty soon people I didn’t know were coming. And then after we hung the first 400, the crowds became too big for my house, so that’s when we had to say, `What are we going to do next’?
R: How did that group start? I mean, did you just say, `Hey, come on over, we’re going to make some clay…”?
J: I have a very close group of women friends. We were on a soccer team together, and so we played soccer forever, we were like family. And we all had kids sort of the same age. So there were 17 of us on the team, plus partners, plus children, plus… that’s a lot of people…plus my family.
So that was sort of the core group. And there would usually be about 12 of us at a time in the garage working on it, sometimes more. Then it started having a life of its own.
A couple of my friends had kids who were a little older. Most of our kids were little, but their kids were early high school age. So then these high school students started coming over and working on it. It started becoming a thing. I didn’t even have to be out there all of the time. Other people would just show up and work on Ben’s Bells on their own. It became something that was really good for me, good for my grieving process. But I think it was good for everyone else, too, because after something tragic happens, people want to do something to help and there really isn’t a lot to do for people but just be together. So it was the being together and talking and working toward a common goal.
Oh, my gosh, the hours we spent! The hours we spent in that garage…amazing!
R: So beyond the bells themselves, can you talk a little bit about what else Ben’s Bells does?
J: Yes, so it started in the garage, enthusiasm for the project spread quickly, we found a studio location, and before long we had over a hundred schools that were involved with the work we were doing. We realized we had this passionate group of people who wanted more. That’s when we started working on kindness education and the science of kindness.
Kindness is a skill set that you can practice. So we created an educational committee with educators, principals, counselors, and parents, and that’s how our school program – Kind Campus – started.
Kindness education is really the heart of the work we do. We follow a social ecological model where the individual is in the center and is surrounded by different social situations in their life, like family, neighborhood, school, work, the greater community…
Our goal is to have opportunities for people to engage the intentional practice of kindness in all areas of their life. The more people are engaged, the more effective the teaching and learning is, and the better we grow these skills together.
R: Was the genesis of that more like you saw the impact that you were having and wanted to do something else and you reached out for ideas? Or was that an idea that you had as you were doing it and sought help?
J: In the beginning, I would explain how Ben’s Bells started, and I would describe what kindness meant to me during that dark, dark time. I would also share some of my own processing around self-kindness and how I needed to care for myself during that time. Conversations about kind ways to support people in grief naturally happened and the idea of kindness as a skill that we can practice and get better at became clear. So it just sort of naturally evolved. I’m a teacher, and this actually relates to what I used to teach at the University of Arizona. So I found myself teaching through the story of how Ben’s Bells started, then started talking about the practice of kindness and self-kindness and mindfulness and all these pieces of the puzzle that set us up to have more kindness in our lives.
R: Sounds like a natural evolution.
J: It was completely natural. I used to teach discourse analysis and politeness theory, so it was fascinating to explore how difficult kindness can be when you haven’t learned a specific kindness skill. I saw so many people struggle with what to say to me after Ben died and I know that before my big grief experience, I struggled, too. But learning what to say to support someone is very doable! It became clear to me that we need to intentionally teach how to connect with each other and make the practice a way of life.
It was very organic growth. We never twisted people’s arms to get involved, we didn’t spend money on marketing. And I had a full-time job at the U of A, I was doing that, plus Ben’s Bells, and so I wasn’t trying to force growth.. The work appealed to people. People were drawn to the idea of being intentional about kindness and so we grew.
R: People like kindness.
J: Yeah, and the idea that we need to talk about it. Because if kindness was so easy we wouldn’t need to talk about it, right? And so I would ask, `Why is it so hard?’, and I would tell funny stories, and I think the fact that I could have a sad story and I could tell funny stories, I think people were really drawn to that. There is so much pressure in our culture to resist sadness and not to accept the struggle. And so I think when I got up and admitted that I didn’t know how to survive this, people were attracted to the vulnerability of the story.
R: I think, just my own perception, I think everybody gravitates towards their own experience, and the rawness is what people experience in their own lives. So it’s that commonality.
J: Right, yeah, so we start seeing each other and say,, “yeah, me too.”
R: As opposed to the façade that everybody puts up.
J: Exactly, you think everyone else has it together, and you’re the only one that is feeling this lost. Right?
R: What impacts have you seen? In other words, how do you measure success?
J: Well, we have formal measures and programmatic evaluation and we have a ton of anecdotal information. We get stories from people all the time about what the work means to them, and we believe what they tell us. So everything from “putting the ‘be kind’ sticker on my car makes me a better driver” to people saying “I was feeling road rage-y, and I saw somebody drive by with the sticker on, and it made me take a deep breath”, to incredibly profound stories about how these practices change people’s lives
We work with an evaluation team at the University of Arizona and they help us formally evaluate.
R: Have you incorporated or have they incorporated the program into a curriculum at the university…Or at a project level?
J: We’ve been fortunate to have some amazing graduate students who have been interested in this work. One student did their doctorate on Kind Discipline. Another student did their master’s thesis with us. They both wrote articles that were published in national journals.
R: What kind of metrics did they use for that?
J: We had to build a foundation because there weren’t good measures out there already, so we had to start with…
R: How do you measure being nice?
J: Exactly. So we had to start by asking how we would know if a school or a workplace was a kind space. We asked students and teachers … If this was the kindest school in the world, how would you know? What would you see? What would you hear? What would you feel? So from all of that data we were able to identify categories of where we would look to measure change. So everything from social/emotional skill development to discipline referrals and absenteeism to turnover in employees. So, going forward, we can look at these different domains.
So that’s ongoing. We really need funding to do a big study.
R: What inspires you?
J: What inspires me?
J: I’m inspired by people who believe that we can change this world. You know, people who with all the evidence to the contrary, who still stand up and find their place, find the piece of it that they can really focus on.
R: To make a difference.
J: People who ask, “what in my local community can I actually do”, versus getting so caught up in the hugeness of the world and the situation and the human condition…
R: And the news cycle…
J: Right, that you can actually focus on doing something. We always say, “kindness is the ‘do’”.
R: What advice do you have for others who want to make a difference but aren’t quite sure how?
J: Well, at Ben’s Bells, we believe that before we get to the actual “doing” of kindness, there’s a lot of awareness building that needs to happen: awareness of how the human mind works, why we struggle with kindness sometimes, understanding ourselves and each other better. From all of that awareness then hopefully our kind intention will result in kind impact.
I think one of the saddest things is when we have a kind intention, but because we don’t spend the time learning, listening, building awareness, our impact is less than kind. A really common example of this is the things people say to grieving people Many people said to me, “Well, at least you have another son”. Painful, right? But their intention was actually kind. Unfortunately, the impact was not.
So I think I’d encourage people to start with what they’re passionate about, and then figure out how to do something.
R: Do. Roll up the sleeves.
J: Yeah, exactly, do. And when we’re really in it, doing, we connect meaningfully with each other. And that meaningful connection, it’s just amazing what that does for our souls.
R: Name someone that you think makes the world better.
You can’t name Mom and Dad. No family.
J: I won’t name my family. Should this be a famous person?
R: It doesn’t matter.
J: There’s a woman in Tucson who I saw at a storytelling event. She started her story with, “I didn’t know what to wear. What do you wear when you’re going to prison?” She shared about being arrested and going to prison when she was quite young, and then what she has done since that time as an advocate for change in the criminal justice system. Her vulnerability was powerful and inspiring and I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that her story changed me that night.
R: What’s her name?
J: Her name is Grace Gàmez and she is one of my heroes.
R: Thank you.