Humankind had reached a new low. Twenty-six people were dead, including 20 elementary schoolchildren. Unimaginable evil had manifested in the small town of Newtown, Conn.
Had all decency left the planet? Is this really what human beings are capable of, we asked each other?
“I can’t do anything to stop it,” thought one woman, a mother of two young children in Burnt Hills. “I don’t know why this is happening.”
But then she saw a picture of a card a friend posted on Facebook. It was written in memory of one of the dead children. A Panera Bread cashier handed it to a customer, along with her meal — already paid for by an earlier customer.
“Please accept this random act of kindness in honor of the 26 victims in Newtown,” the card read. “All I ask is that you pay it forward.”
The gesture originated in Auburn, Ala., on Dec. 14, the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Warren Tidwell came home from work, heartbroken over the tragedy, according to NBC News, and created a Facebook page called “26 Acts of Kindness.” He asked people to perform one act of generosity for each of the victims lost in the massacre and share the results.
Since then, the request has spread like wildfire, reaching the Capital Region in the form of a free coffee at Stewart’s or a drive-through meal at Dunkin’ Donuts already paid for, a batch of homemade cookies for a neighbor and other small tokens of appreciation for strangers who pass in and out of our lives every day.
People are sharing their acts on Facebook and Twitter, using the hashtag #26Acts (and other variations, including #27Acts to include Nancy Lanza and #28Acts to include the shooter, as well).
On Christmas Eve, the mother of two from Burnt Hills (who asked to remain anonymous as a #26Acts donor) walked into Target with her 4-year-old son. They weren’t there to shop.
“I told him to find people who looked nice or needed a smile,” she said. “The first woman he ran up to and handed her a $5 gift card to Dunkin’ Donuts and said ‘Merry Christmas!’ It was great.”
They handed out seven more $5 gift cards to other strangers they happened across at Target and then at the bank. The boy brimmed with excitement, chasing after people through aisles to hand them their card, which bore the same message as the original one his mom saw on Facebook.
“It’s a bittersweet thing, really,” she said. “It’s a tragedy that’s upsetting, but at the same time, this shows there’s a lot of good in humanity, that we’re trying to help the good outweigh the bad. And then we wake up and hear that firemen have been shot, and it feels like this is something that’s in our control. This is something I can do.”
Newtown has weighed heavily on Sherry Tomasky’s mind. The Glenville woman thinks of Newtown, and then she thinks of her 6-year-old daughter, and then her heart breaks all over again. Her eyes moisten, her voice chokes.
She hears her friends and acquaintances talk about the acts of kindness they’ve received, or their own ideas for #26Acts, and she freezes.
“I know a lot of people who are doing it, but I hadn’t actually done one myself,” said Tomasky, 39. “I was just too emotional about it. In fact, I would be in the post office, standing there and thinking, 'Oh, I should go to Dunkin’ Donuts and get these guys a box of Joe, and all of a sudden, I will start crying. I couldn’t come up with the courage to do it without breaking down.”
Then a 62-year-old man set a car and house on fire and shot at the firefighters who responded to the scene near Rochester on Monday, killing two and injuring three others. It rattled her.
She drove to Trader Joe’s in Colonie and filled a bag with pasta, sauces, cheeses and desserts and hand-delivered it to the East Glenville Fire Department. It wasn’t even her local fire department, but the firefighters there had given her daughter a ride to school in their fire truck once and she felt grateful for them, nonetheless.
“I said, ‘I just want you guys to have this because this is a special firehouse for me,’ ” said Tomasky.
It was her first random act of kindness in memory of the Newtown victims, and now she’s ready for more.
“I wanted to be part of this movement,” she said. “I wanted to do this. I just hadn’t been able to face the emotions that came with it, until yesterday. My first grader was one of those kids, essentially. This makes me think about why I’m doing it, and I’m doing it for these 20 children whose mothers are no different from me.”
The Wind family has been through a lot. They know the pain of loss. Bailey Wind, a 17-year-old Shaker High School student, lost her boyfriend and friend in a tragic car crash just two weeks before the Newtown massacre. She needed neck and jaw surgery and lost five teeth.
The community has helped them take some of the load off. They will be out to dinner, and a waiter will cover their meal. Bailey will get her nails done, and the nail technician will refuse her tips. They’ll go to buy a Christmas tree, and the cashier has paid for it already.
“The things that have happened to us as a family and what people have done for us out of the goodness of their hearts is just incredible,” said Dawn Wind, Bailey’s mother.
After Newtown, she knew what it felt like not to personally know a victim and still feel helpless, so the Wind family decided to commit 26 random acts of kindness, starting with a free Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through order for the guy in the car behind them.
“I just think it’s absolutely incredible, and I think that everybody should do it,” said Dawn Wind. “It’s just hit so many people. I mean, even though everybody’s so different in this world, these kinds of tragedies really hit home. It makes you realize you want to be a better person.”
Many of the material acts of kindness include a message in memory of one of the Newtown victims. One woman tweeted that she gave a stranger a $10 gift card in memory of Dylan Hockley, a blue-eyed first grader at Sandy Hook who was killed in the arms of his teacher.
Others are donating 26 stuffed bears to hospitals, or putting 26 lottery tickets on car windshields, or paying the tolls of the next 26 people to drive through the toll lane.
One woman walked into a Stewart’s Shop in Glenville on Monday and dropped 26 one-dollar bills into the “Holiday Match” jar.
“We have very generous customers here in Glenville,” said store manager Doug Cooper. “These donations go to hundreds of local children’s charities in the area that Stewart’s serves.”
That very day, another woman came in around noon and asked to buy the next 26 cups of coffee people ordered. She had two requests: to stay anonymous and for the cashier to tell the customer their coffee was in honor of a Newtown victim.
“About five or six coffees into it, another gentleman who got a free coffee said, 'Oh, that’s a good idea. I want to do the same thing.’ ”
In all, 52 customers received free coffee that day. Each one left with a smile.