Random Acts of Kindness

by Abbey Cahill | 2/25/16 7:30pm

Kaitana Martinez ’16 exudes happiness. In her emails, she subs out the typical “Best” or “Regards” closing, and replaces it with “Smiles, Kaitana.”

Martinez leads the Dartmouth Random Acts of Kindness club, which focuses on promoting a culture of inclusivity, gratitude and kindness in the Dartmouth community. I went to one of the club’s weekly meetings last Thursday to learn more about what the club does.

I found Martinez upstairs waiting outside Collis 218. The club using the room before RAK was running late, and in typical Dartmouth fashion, I was somewhat irritated by their tardiness. Martinez, however, seemed unfazed. She popped half of a bagel bite into her mouth, chewed and smiled. She explained that the club was not in any way on a strict schedule; for example, some people come consistently each week, whereas others come only a few times.

“We just like people to come and participate when they’re free because their schedules are so crazy,” Martinez said. “Some weeks we literally have myself and another person, and some weeks we have 20 people.”

This week, people were bogged down by midterms, so it was looking like the former scenario. Martinez and I were joined by Heather Flokos ’19, who walked in beaming, her cheeks flushed from the cold. I explained that I was writing a profile on RAK for the Mirror’s issue about happiness, and she enthusiastically approved.

Both Flokos and Martinez are fascinated by human emotions and interactions. Martinez is pursuing a neuroscience major and a religion minor and Flokos is interested in psychology, she’s currently taking “Psychology 1.”

“It’s so hard — I wanna try everything before deciding [on a major],” Flokos said. “But I think like the social sciences the best.”

Flokos discovered RAK through an email this term, and she decided to come to a meeting, curious about what the club did. The club’s numbers tend to peak in the first half of the year with a new group of freshman coming in, because students like Flokos are eager to explore different clubs. She remarked that she was pleasantly surprised by the group’s warmth and kindness.

“Everyone was super nice and friendly, as would be expected with a group like this,” Flokos said.

Sara Gagnon ’18 is another student who noticed a blitz from RAK her freshman year. The mission of the club resonated with her, so she attended a meeting with her floormate. She explained that they did an activity aimed at making students feel supported and comforted.

“We made tear-off signs that said, ‘Take what you need,’” Gagnon explained. “Instead of phone numbers, there were little cards that said ‘happiness,’ ‘support,’ ‘confidence’ — stuff like that.”

Rosey Oppenheim ’18 was sittingnext to Gagnon when I interviewed her. She agreed wholeheartedly that a little bit of kindness can go a long way, which is one of the club’s missions.

“That’s really nice!” Oppenheim said, laughing. “If I were having a bad day, and I saw that sign, I would take one.”

RAK was started by Peety Kaur ’15, who felt that people in a highly competitive environment like Dartmouth often get stuck in their own personal bubbles. Kaur wanted to create a way to give back to the community. When she first started holding meetings, she was unsure whether people would even show up, but then numbers started growing and a consistent group formed. When she graduated last year, Kaur passed the club off to two ’16s, one of whom is Martinez.

I asked Martinez and Flokos to recall their favorite kindness projects. In her short time with RAK, Flokos said she has been pleasantly surprised by the variety of endeavors that they’ve taken on.

"We have such a huge range of projects,” Flokos said. “I’ve found that surprising.”

During the first meeting of this winter term, RAK made “Welcome home” signs for their hallways. They’ve slipped positive messages into Hinman boxes, written thank-you cards to Dartmouth Dining Services employees and decorated campus with posters expressing gratitude. Last year, RAK created a “Spotlight on Custodians” display in the library. The club interviewed different custodians and designed a poster board for each one, encouraging students to write their own thank-you cards for the custodians that work in their dorms. Martinez told me that the most exciting part of the projects is seeing how positively and appreciatively people react to them.

“Sometimes, for example, we go through the library and do candy giveaways,” Martinez said. “Some people really genuinely need it in that moment because they’re so stressed out. You can see it on their faces.”

Natalie Gellman ’18 recalled her experience on the receiving end of one of these giveaways.

“I was in the library studying during finals week, and they were handing out plates of food,” Gellman said. “It was comforting to know that all these other students were in the same boat as me. Honestly, the food united us, and it brought up our energy levels.”

This month, RAK is conducting a public kindness challenge. They blitzed out a calendar filled with ways to spread gratitude and compassion within the Dartmouth community. Each day has its own challenge, and both Flokos and Martinez are participating. Flokos described a recent challenge that had a positive impact on her.

“Yesterday, the challenge was to get in touch with an old friend,” Flokos said. “I messaged my friend, and we’ve been having such a great conversation. I’m so glad I did it.”

The day that I joined them, they were writing positive messages on bananas at Collis Cafe. Martinez led us downstairs and through the back entrance into Collis. We emerged behind the stir-fry counter. The glass doors were shut, and the employees were in the process of preparing for Late Night. Martinez greeted them and explained that we were there, from RAK, to write on the bananas.

I laughed at the absurdity of the statement. The Collis employees welcomed us in.

“We’re all for happiness and positivity,” one employee said, directing us towards the bananas.

Sometimes the Collis morning crew does it themselves, but for now, it was our time to shine. I drew a phone on mine. A banana phone. I was eager to show it off, and Flokos and Martinez made me feel like a talented artist. Martinez snapped a picture for the RAK Facebook page.

While we decorated, I asked them if they’d ever received a kind gesture from a stranger. Flokos recalled a recent experience when she was getting coffee.

“It’s surprising the amount of times that people do nice things for you,” Flokos said. “One time, I was in Dunkin Donuts, and there was this trucker who was late for a delivery. So, I let him go in front of me, and when he ordered his stuff, he said to me, ‘And what do you want?’ He ended up paying for my iced coffee.”

Martinez explained that she has been incredibly fortunate to receive a scholarship from a group of total strangers from her hometown.

“It’s really helped my family pay for college,” Martinez said. “They choose someone every five years, because they want to help my community as they leave my small town and head somewhere else.”

She called the gesture “unbelievably kind.”

In addition to providing financial support, they occasionally communicate with Martinez through cards; she told me, for example, that she recently received a couple Valentines from them.

This reminded me of my own experience as a Dartmouth scholarship fund recipient. Last term, I received an email encouraging me to write a thank you note to my donor.

I wrote a letter about what Dartmouth means to me — running through Pine Park, picking tomatoes on the organic farm, receiving a book recommendation from a professor, staying late in the art studio after class ends just because I want to — and it was all to someone I had never met before. A complete stranger has made all of these experiences possible for me.

We wrote in silence for a while. The pile of blank bananas was shrinking quickly, and I found myself wishing I could stay a little longer.

Martinez turned a banana over in her hands, laughing at a face she had drawn.

‘“Why do all of mine look so evil?” she asked.

Falcon, a Collis employee, chimed in from over the counter.

“You guys thinking of some clever things to put on them?” he asked. “One time someone wrote one that said ‘I’m ripe here for you.’ It’s got to be my favorite.”

Flokos encouraged him to join us, and he agreed, grabbing a sharpie for himself. He wrote “kick today’s butt” in bold, dark letters on one of the bananas.

And I did. I grabbed an inspirational banana for the road and walked out feeling giddy and grateful for these people I had just met and for black sharpies and for bruised bananas and for people who get so much joy out of the little things in life.