Joyce Smith wholeheartedly believes that a single act of kindness can change a life.
“You never know what people are going through,” Smith says. “When I moved to Columbia in 2013, I wanted to make a difference artistically. Through Children’s Grove’s projects and working with unbelievably kind people, I hope that I have.”
Children’s Grove, which Smith is a board member of, is a 501(c)(3) organization that seeks to inspire a culture of kindness and support mental and emotional wellbeing of children, youth and young adults in Columbia and Boone County. The volunteer-run organization is embedded throughout Columbia’s schools, parks and businesses.
Founder Anne Deaton began Children’s Grove in 2012 after the Sandy Hook tragedy. “Kindness isn’t a tangible item,” Smith says. “How do you explain kindness to people?
“I work on projects that reflect kindness visually,” Smith says. These include “kindness trees” planted at schools throughout Boone County, butterfly benches and art murals.
“The kindness trees, which are butterfly magnolias, symbolize kindness visually and a plaque beneath each tree features our motto ‘A single act of kindness can change a life forever,’” Smith says. Other visual projects include the butterfly mural in Alley A, which was guided by local artist Madeleine LeMieux, the new mural in Flat Branch Park, which was created by Adrienne Luther, and butterfly benches. Children’s Grove has also given away more than 200 “Kindness Changes Everything” yard signs throughout Columbia, including outside of public schools, businesses and residences.
While butterfly benches and murals stand out visually, Children’s Grove volunteers also organize community education programs focused on youth-related mental health issues and the power of books to address both kindness and emotional well-being. One example is their “kindness libraries,” which provide tangible benefits to youth in Columbia. “Our kindness libraries took off right from the get-go,” Smith says. Kindness libraries involve a committee of volunteers choosing books to donate to local schools. The committee reads through children’s books that have won awards for kindness and have to rate each book from 1-10, 10 being the book gave the reader shivers or made them cry.
“We are very careful about the kindness books that we share,” she says. Every public school and a few of the private schools in Columbia were gifted mini kindness libraries of these choices. “As a former school teacher, I know how much learning about kindness can affect children,” Smith continues.
Another in-school project that Children’s Grove founded is the Kindness Ambassador program. Through working with the high schools’ outreach efforts. Kindness Clubs exist in most of the middle schools and several of the elementary schools.
Last year, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Children’s Grove launched their inaugural Kindness in Business Awards. “We thought, ‘what can we do as an organization during COVID?’” Smith says. “We partnered with the MU School of Journalism and Missouri Business Alert to start the Kindness in Business awards.”
Anyone doing a kind act can be nominated, Smith says. “You can nominate your own company, kindness to youth, kindness to the public or community and kindness to employees within your own company. It really evolves within that.” Winners of the Kindness in Business Awards are printed in the Missouri Business Alert. “It’s a lot of publicity for these businesses and nonprofits — when we notified the finalists, it was like they won the Academy Award,” Smith says. The second annual awards began this September.
In 2019, Columbia was selected as the “nicest place in Missouri” by Reader’s Digest — something Children’s Grove is very proud of. But Smith wants to take it a step further. “What if we became the city of kindness?” Smith asks. “When you think about the kind of press that we’ve had in the past five years — it’s not so good … but it’s about looking at the city through a different lens. It’s almost like a shadow — wherever you go throughout the city you’re going to see visual kindness signs.”
Currently Children’s Grove is undertaking a sculpture project near the current Children’s Grove project at Stephens Lake Park. “We’re going to do a sculpture coming out of the water, surrounded by native plants, with a sign that helps reflect kindness,” Smith says.
For a map of all the Children’s Grove projects, or for more information, visit childrensgrove.org. For a kindness yard sign, email firstname.lastname@example.org