Do-gooding foundation working to make acts of kindness habit-forming

Tuesday, December 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DENVER (AP) _ Molly Stuart's Christmas wish list is longer than most, even though it lacks the usual electronic gadgets, jewelry or other gifts.

Stuart is president of the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, and her goal is to make kindness habit forming.

Her foundation works primarily with schools as a clearinghouse for projects promoting good deeds and ways to implement them. The group consults with about 20,000 people in 136 countries, Stuart says, and 35,000 teachers have received free project guides or other help for 800,000 students.

``Every day, 100 people call us thinking they can change the world,'' Stuart said. ``Some call because they want to feel like they are part of something greater. They enter the world of do-gooding through us and then they find something they have a passion for, like helping animal shelters,'' Stuart said.

Stuart's foundation has a staff of seven and a budget of $1 million donated by an anonymous philanthropist. It moved to Colorado from Berkeley, Calif., in February 2000.

The philosophy of practicing ``random kindness and senseless acts of beauty'' was coined two decades ago by Ann Herbert, an activist writer in the San Francisco area, as an antidote for the random acts of violence that had become so common.

Later it was popularized in a book, and once was a popular car bumper sticker.

Bonnie Cazolaio of Cortland, N.Y., who coordinates staff development for two school districts, is among those who have turned to the foundation. ``I read in 1997 that they had a teachers' guide that was free so I sent for it,'' she said.

In the district's latest project, teachers were given donated Lifesavers to hand out to each child observed committing a kind act or who described something kind done for them, she said.

``I love the people there. They have been very kind to me,'' Cazolaio said.

The Rev. Debbie Taylor, a chaplain at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., also has worked with the foundation. ``Kindness is the only thing I can think of that is going to get us up out of our cynicism,'' she said.

Taylor organized massages for 587 hospital staff after a particularly gloomy period ``with many severe cases and so many deaths. It just didn't seem to stop.''

She says she gets as much as she gives.

``I definitely get a helper's high whether I walk into a patient's room or organize a random act of kindness.''

The late psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger was among the first to document the health benefits derived from helping others. ``Love cures people _ both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it,'' Menninger said.

Dr. Redford Williams, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at Duke University and author of the ``The Trusting Heart: Great News About Type A Behavior,'' says research shows ``people who have hostile, cynical and mistrusting attitudes have higher death rates from heart disease.

``Behavior is genuinely reciprocated. If you help little old ladies across the street, let people pull in front of you when you are driving, chances are your social support network will grow. People with lots of social support live longer,'' he says.