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SOUL FOOD:

“Simple kindness,” wrote author Bo Lozoff, “may be the most vital key to the riddle of how human beings can live with each other in peace, and care properly for this planet we all share.”

Jeannette Mare-Packard wants you to believe in the power of kindness. That her reasons were born from heartbreak is hard to believe when you first meet this petite embodiment of effervescence who has a relentless smile.

Mare-Packard started Ben’s Bells, a nonprofit that recognizes individuals for random acts of kindness. You may have seen bright yellow fliers for a fundraiser for Ben’s Bells around the city these last few weeks. If you did, I put them there. I’m determined to bring her commitment to the power of kindness to Huntington Beach.

The brightly painted walls surrounding the terra cotta floors of her office near the University of Arizona are emblazoned with good reasons to embrace kindness for all it’s worth. They come from the likes of Aesop, Sophocles and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“Kindness gives birth to kindness,” said Sophocles in 447.

Along with love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, Galatians 5:22 says kindness is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

Some have called it serendipity, the way I met Mare-Packard. Others have even called it a happy accident. I call it providence.

Early in February, when I was set to visit a friend in Tucson, someone sent me an e-mail with a link to a video about a two-legged dog named Faith. Faith’s is a wonderful story you can read at www.faiththedog.net.

It was she who led me to Mare-Packard. Looking for the original source of the video e-mailed to me, I found former CNN anchor Daryn Kagan’s website, “Show the World What’s Possible,” at www.darynkagan.com.

The site is a wellspring of stories the Boston Globe says “illustrate the triumph of the human spirit.” Among them I found Mare-Packard’s and was amazed to discover she lives in Tucson.

I sent her an e-mail asking to meet her while I was in town, and she invited me to the little adobe building on University Boulevard that houses Ben’s Bells.

Ben is Mare-Packard’s blond, angel-faced son who died on the morning of Good Friday in 2002. He died unexpectedly, before he turned 3.

“He was a healthy, healthy kid,” Mare-Packard told me, sitting in her sun-drenched office. “He just had a cold, and the next thing he was dying. His airway closed right before my eyes.”

Her efforts to save him with rescue breathing and CPR were to no avail. The croup virus — common and harmless for many children — killed Ben.

The pain of their loss was beyond anything she, her husband or her 6-year-old son Matthew could ever have fathomed.

“All I really wanted to do was die. I really mean that,” Mare-Packard told me.

She prayed to be hit by a car. She prayed for an airplane to go down with her in it. The pain was so overwhelming, she says, she didn’t know what to do with it.

She knew she couldn’t kill herself. She knew she wouldn’t. But when she returned to teaching linguistics and sign language at the University of Arizona five months later, she was still deep in grief. Amidst the crowded university campus, she was still praying that she would somehow die.

“I couldn’t believe I could look so kind of regular on the outside,” she says. “It blew my mind.”

And it caused her to look at others very differently. She had always known intellectually how invisible emotional pain could be, but now she was living proof.

She realized that no matter how “put together” a person might look, they could, like her, be on the edge of desperation. She was struck by how dependent she was on the gentleness of others.

When, for example, a student held open a door for her she wanted to thank him, wanted to tell him, “Look, I know you think you just held open a door for some person, but you’re saving my life right now.”

Only because she sensed people wouldn’t be able to handle it, she didn’t.

Ben’s Bells are strands of enchanting ceramic wind chimes in breathtaking colors. They are handmade, mostly by volunteers. They are not for sale.

Twice a year, hundreds of Ben’s Bells are hung randomly in public places around Tucson and more recently in other cities. On April 13, Mare-Packard, her small staff and volunteers hung 300 bells at Virginia Tech.

You can read many of the touching stories of people finding them on the Ben’s Bells website, www.bensbells.org. Finding the bells is one of two ways to get a string of Ben’s Bells.

If you live in Tucson, you can also get one if you’re “belled.” Through the local radio station, 92.9 The Mountain, residents nominate someone to be “belled” for their kindness.

The person nominating someone, says Mare-Packard, may not even know the nominee’s last name. “The person [may] serve coffee at Starbucks. But … this person’s every day, consistent kindness really makes a difference in [someone’s] life.”

A committee chooses from the nominees and surprises a “bellee” each week with a string of bells and a Ben’s Bells T-shirt. The Arizona Daily Star publishes the story each Saturday.

The idea is to get people to commit to being kind consistently. It’s an idea and a project I’m resolute about bringing here.

A neighbor has volunteered the kiln I need. I could use a clay slab roller. I need a place large enough to gather, say 30 people, to make beads for the strings of bells.

“It’s very non-threatening. It doesn’t require any artistic ability. You can be as creative as you want to be,” says Mare-Packard.

Ben’s Bells doesn’t have a travel budget, but for airfare and hotel expenses, she will come to teach us everything we need to know to create our first batch of Ben’s Bells to hang throughout Surf City.

“Ben is running this thing. This is what he was born and died to do,” says Mare-Packard. “For me the whole thing is completely spiritual and the connections I make through it are part of my process of healing.”

If you’d like to be part of the project here in Huntington Beach, let me know.


MICHÈLE MARR is a freelance writer from Huntington Beach. She can be reached at michele@soulfoodfiles.com.


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