Some days are so hard that Elizabeth Childrey not only wants to crawl beneath the covers but to hide completely under the bed and never come out.
Losing a child changes the way a parent looks at the world.
Childrey’s daughter, Kate, died in April 2017 of what doctors believe was heart arrhythmia. She had been a schoolteacher in North Carolina before returning home a few months before her death to recuperate from a broken leg. No one had any inkling about a heart problem. She was 30.
Kate’s death hit her family hard, even more so as it came less than five months after her 26-year-old cousin, Perrin Thompson Hall, died of cancer. That’s a terrible burden on one family.
Elizabeth Childrey, who lives in the West End of Richmond, took a walk in her neighborhood soon after her niece’s death and encountered a friend who mentioned that when he died, he wanted his family to include a request in his obituary for those who might be inclined to do a random act of kindness.
“I thought that was the coolest thing I’ve ever heard,” Childrey recalled. “Little did I know that’s what we were going to end up doing five months later.”
Kate was known for her kindness, her mother said, for extending a helping hand, including others and encouraging everyone. So, it was natural for Kate’s obit to include this:
In lieu of flowers and donations we ask that those who so desire perform a random act of kindness for themselves and for someone else in Kate’s name.
“Then the whole kindness thing kind of got going,” Childrey said. “It’s just weird how one thing led to another and one person helped and more people helped. I’ve never done anything quite so blind before that ended up so incredibly good. Does that make sense?”
As I spoke with Childrey, we stood next to a gleaming new bench on the campus of the Lower School at Collegiate School, Kate and Perrin’s alma mater. The prominent lettering on the back of the bench? Kind Acts Touch Everyone.
The manifestation of the “kindness thing” is this bench — and five others — that have been placed at schools to honor Kate’s memory and to serve as touchstones of compassion and places where children who are lonely can sit and wait for other students to reach out in kindness. Another bench is on order and funding for 20 more is in place.
This is a long way from the beginning when Childrey decided to put together a book of comforting quotes to raise money for a good cause; in time, the good cause became her own.
The book idea swelled to become a nonprofit organization with proceeds from sales of the book and other gift items funding benches to be donated to schools to spread kindness.
Childrey launched Kindness4kate.org at the beginning of September, and, she said, “Honestly, I was thinking if I got enough for one bench, I was going to be really excited. Within an hour, I had people donating enough for, like, four benches.
“I don’t have a vision other than if we can all become kinder, that would be a good thing, and if it affects one child, that’s a great thing. It’s been a wild success. I don’t know where it’s going, but I know that I have this energy outside of myself that just has to keep doing this. People say to me, ‘What you’re doing is so good.’ I don’t have a choice. All I’ve done is done something to help ease the pain.”
One of the first benches went to Northstar Academy, a school in Henrico County serving children with disabilities in grades K-12 where kindness is a particularly important ingredient for students trying to find a comfortable path in the world.
“When students join the Northstar family, they are often still learning how to make friends,” said Crystal Trent, head of school at Northstar. “To help our students, they participate in a social skills course that focuses on a monthly theme. This welcoming bench was delivered during our Compassion Month, which is so befitting. With the bench’s message to treat each other with kindness, it creates an opportunity for students to foster new friendships.”
At Collegiate, the bench is used as a “buddy bench,” said Debbie Miller, head of Lower School.
“If somebody doesn’t have a friend to play with, they come over and sit,” so other children can notice they need a playmate, Miller said. “They just meet up here.”
Other benches have mostly gone to private and public schools around Richmond, though some have gone or will go to schools in North Carolina, Georgia and Montana, where Childrey lives part of the year.
The custom-made metal benches with thermoplastic coating are sturdy and built to last, and are not inexpensive. They cost about $1,500, said Childrey, who stresses she couldn’t have come this far without the help and support of many friends — some she’s known for years and others she’s met only recently, such as Kate’s former students in North Carolina — and family, in particular, her husband, Bill, and son, Thurston.
“This has a life of its own, and I have no idea where it’s going,” she said, “but what I do know is that kindness matters and makes a difference — and no act of kindness is ever too small.”