A pair of Tucson tragedies almost nine years apart – one devastating a family, the other bringing an entire community to tears — came full circle for a brave and selfless woman who turned the horrific events into something positive.
Because of her actions, she is affecting lives — both in the Tucson region and around the country — in ways she never dreamed.
Three-year-old Ben Maré died suddenly on March 29, 2002. His parents, Jeannette and Dean Maré, were almost too overwhelmed to go on. But when support in the way of kindness began to pour in, their hearts opened up. They found healing in the creative act of forming bells from clay while being surrounded by others.
Jeannette Maré started Ben’s Bells that year with the intention of inspiring kindness in others. Each bell includes a note to pass along kindness. Over the years, the organization has become familiar to many Tucsonans, but it had remained relatively unknown elsewhere.
Then came the shootings at U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ constituent event Jan. 8, 2011. While Tucsonans lived through feelings of helplessness and sorrow, Ben’s Bells volunteers went into gear, hanging 1,400 bells around the city.
Maré immediately noticed kindness being adopted on a community level.
“They got the message more clearly. It was simple acts of connection that helped me, and January 2011 made people feel out of control,” she said.
A week later, “NBC Nightly News” ran a feature report on Ben’s Bells and how it was helping Tucsonans deal with the shooting tragedy. Maré’s phone began to ring.
“We got national coverage, and a huge response from outside Tucson happened. We didn’t know how to respond. Other cities wanted to make bells themselves.” She said.
Now the staff of Ben’s Bells has taken the program to other states including North Carolina, New Jersey and Florida.
Although the organization had been growing steadily, Maré and her board of directors were unprepared for the sudden outside interest and have had to make strategic decisions on how to proceed. They hired a consultant and are receiving pro bono advice from a local attorney.
One of the concerns they face is funding. Ben’s Bells has been mostly self-sustaining.
“We’re not grant dependent; we get no state or federal funding,” Maré said. “Forty percent of our funding comes from individuals and 45 percent from the sale of Be Kind merchandise.”
In Tucson, Ben’s Bells has two studios where staff members and volunteers make tiles that attach to the bells. Having chapters in additional communities seems to make sense, but opening studios with enough space to house kilns and other equipment takes money. So does hiring staff.
“It’s a chicken and egg situation,” Maré noted. “Once they open, they begin supporting the message and the studio. We’re at the point now where it’s a business and we have a recognizable brand, and that takes it up a notch.”
Perhaps of bigger concern is maintaining the integrity of the mission and the story behind it. Questions arise such as how to manage growth, protect the message and keep all components uniform.
Dev Sethi, a passionate Ben’s Bells board member and attorney, said tangibles, such as the logo, tile, bell shapes and font can be registered.
“The problem is what to do to protect the way of delivering the message. We can’t protect kindness; we don’t want to,” Sethi said.
Many Tucsonans are aware of the bell hangings performed twice a year and the weekly bellings in which a deserving person is selected to receive a bell. But perhaps the group’s most important program is Kind Kids.
Offered in more than 100 schools in the Tucson region, Kind Kids helps to create a culture of kindness among children. It first came to Sethi’s attention when his daughter, who was nine years old at the time, came home from school and started writing thank-you notes to other kids for being kind.
“Ben’s Bells created an environment of empathy, where being kind is expected behavior,” Sethi said. “Now kids who try to bully others are looked at as being outside the norm. Ben’s Bells allows kids to experience what it feels like to be kind to someone else and have others be kind to them.”
The organization is taking the Kind Kids initiative a big step further by having social scientists at the University of Arizona and Stanford University perform quantitative studies on how kindness affects people.
“Collecting data from kids over time, researchers are testing theories that compassion and kindness increases satisfaction and relationships and health. The real benefits of Ben’s Bells will be 20 years from now when the kids are co-workers and bosses and spouses,” Sethi said.