Catherine Barrett says a neighbor’s small act of kindness was what sparked a now-global movement focused on all things good.
Like most people around the globe in March 2020, Barrett was terrified of the then-novel coronavirus and watched as residents tried to navigate the crisis by canceling events, often panic buying and locking themselves inside their home to evade an invisible enemy.
“There was aggression and people were getting really wound up,” she recalls.
Amid the panic, Barrett says a neighbor left out a bowl of chocolates on a shared table in her apartment complex. The same day, Barrett – who lives in Melbourne, Australia – decided to create a Facebook page focused on other kindly acts from around the world. She named it: “The Kindness Pandemic.”
“It just felt like something really positive to grab a hold of,” she said. “The alternative for me was being in a world that was full of coronavirus.”
More than half a million people joined in less than a month. They all shared stories of acts of kindness – both what they may have done for others and what others did for them. And the more stories people shared, the more kindness they inspired, Barrett says.
The group, she says, now tries to focus on “intersectional kindness,” a phrase it coined to encourage members to reach out beyond their circle of loved ones and acquaintances, and target a kind act toward marginalized groups or individuals who battled difficult conditions before the coronavirus, and whose challenges may have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
With such a large army of supporters, each small action can inspire another and collectively go a long way, she says. The group has created campaigns for more than two dozen causes, each one offering ways that members can participate, share their story, or help.
Among them, a campaign focused on thanking postal delivery staff, who continued working during the pandemic. Another offered ideas to aid the Black Lives Matter movement. Another had guidance on care packages for new moms.
“Acts of kindness are infectious,” Barrett says. “There is a myth that acts of kindness should not be spoken of… and that people are blowing their own trumpet if they talk about them. We say to people, ‘Please understand that by sharing your acts of kindness, you are helping to create the change. You’re encouraging people to do the same.’”
Receiving love from strangers
As the group grew, more than 60 local branches of the Kindness Pandemic sprouted across the world – including several in the US – focused on helping their own communities.
In California, Dr. Geanie Asante started the Bay Area branch, which now boasts more than 300 members.
“With everything that was happening with the pandemic, I remember wanting to be able to start something, to be able to help,” she says. “In the Bay Area, there are many disadvantaged, disenfranchised populations here, especially in East Oakland where I live.”
The group offers links to job fairs, clothes giveaways, and free meal events, as well as Covid-19 information. In some cases, Asante says, group members collectively responded to calls for help from other residents – from delivering cleaning supplies to collecting donations for struggling families.
Among those who turned to the group for help was Ashley Williams. Weeks earlier, the single mother to a 9-year-old girl suffered a flat tire and could not, at the time, afford groceries. Group members, Williams says, collected money through Cash App to help her.
“I kind of cried a little bit,” Williams told CNN. “As a person who grew up in the (foster care) system, I’ve been on my own since I was 3 years old.
“Just seeing so many people come together for somebody they don’t even know, who they’ve never met, for the sake of helping, is just amazing.”
The group, she says, reignited a love for her community, but also offered her ways to help others who were battling their own hardships.
“The Bay Area Kindness Pandemic represents hope. it represents love. It represents community,” Williams says. “For the people who are scared to ask for help, or afraid to reach out, don’t be. You’ll be surprised at everybody.”
An escape from bad news
Lee Weal runs the much-smaller New York City Metro Kindness Pandemic Facebook page, a group she says that not only offered her company during monthslong periods of isolation but also opened her eyes to the good happening around her.
Weal, who lives alone, says she was overwhelmed by the virus that traumatized her city and by politics she didn’t agree with when she stumbled onto the original group.
“I was getting too angry and too tense,” she said. “And because I’m isolated because of coronavirus, I need to find other ways to break away from that so that I don’t sink completely.”
That’s when she noticed a post in the original Kindness Pandemic group calling for more local branches. Around the same time, she says, her daughter told her about a community refrigerator that had been set up near her home – a public resource for individuals struggling with food insecurity. And that gave Weal an idea.
“I said, ‘Wow, this is the universe at play,’” Weal said.
In the months since Weal launched the group, it has turned into a page rich with resources, much like its Bay Area counterpart: with announcements on vaccine sites to community refrigerator locations and volunteer opportunities.
“It was a way to not live in that negative space where everything is just terrible,” she said. “It helped me. So I feel if it helps me… it’s going to help other people too who are feeling like I am.”
‘That’s how we got through this’
Hundreds of miles away, Erica Owens joined her local Michigan Kindness Pandemic branch, while running a monthslong food distribution initiative.
Owens and her son took on the initiative to help feed families nearby: She’d receive food boxes from a federal program that seeks to partner with local distributors and deliver the free produce to residents in need.
Her only problem? She couldn’t pack enough food in her vehicle to deliver to as many people as she’d like.
She expressed the concern to fellow Kindness Pandemic group members – and her words reached the ears of a local car dealership, who then provided her with larger vehicles every time she distributed the food supplies. With the extra space, she says she was able to feed about 2,500 families weekly.
“What was really cool for how much division there was in this country during all these months, how much pain and suffering and death and horrible job loss …. what we switched to was people actually reaching out to neighbors and helping their neighbors,” Owens said.
The Kindness Pandemic groups were a powerful response, she says, to the negativity often found on social media – and have proved to be an important resource for thousands, who often didn’t have anyone else to turn to.
“For most people that were staying home, whether they lived alone or maybe they didn’t, that was a resource,” Owens said. “It was a way to grieve and a way to talk to each other and find hope or joy, or just a little sympathy for what they were going through.”
it was “their daily dose of joy,” she said. “That’s how we got through this.”