Coloring with markers on a piece of white paper, Riley Perleberg, 6, draws a border of hearts to frame a single rainbow-colored flower on a handmade card created especially for a family whose grandfather recently died. Riley has never met the family, but he already is beginning to care about them.
Working neatly and care-fully, he writes on the inside: “I hope you feel happy soon.”
“It looks really good,” says Barb Bratvold, 56, Riley’s teacher at Evansville (Minn.) Public School, as the first-grader plants one more colorful blossom on the card and writes “Love, Riley.” The boy smiles with quiet satisfaction as another session of the Evansville Kindness Club comes to a close.
Since 1995, Bratvold and members of her club have spread sunshine by making and distributing more than 47,000 greeting cards to people who are ill, mourning, lonely or struggling with other adversity in their lives. For Bratvold, helping students become more caring and kind toward others is part of her calling as a teacher.
“God gave me a job to do teaching these kids how to read, write and do math, but I believe he also wants me to teach them how to treat others,” she says.
The Kindness Club started in 1995 in Evansville (pop. 612) when Bratvold’s fourth-grade students decided to make get-well cards for a retired schoolteacher who became ill shortly after visiting their class as a guest speaker. Her subsequent thank-you letter prompted smiles and thoughtful reflection from the children.
“They talked about how good they felt helping somebody,” Bratvold recalls. “I told them they were being kind.”
Eighteen years and 316 students later, Bratvold now teaches first grade and is shepherding the school’s first-graders as the newest ambassadors of the Evansville Kindness Club. Inducted as lifetime members on the first day of school last fall, each student was presented a certificate bearing the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
During their twice-weekly meetings, Bratvold and the children discuss the importance of playing together, including others, following rules and complimenting people. The club’s primary activity, however, continues to be creating handmade cards to lift the spirits of others—often with life-changing results.
Bratvold recalls how one former student disliked making cards and displayed a poor attitude and sloppy work during club meetings—until his babysitter was killed in a car accident and his class responded with a bundle of sympathy cards. “He delivered the cards and saw what they meant to the family,” she says. “The next year, he often stopped in to let me know about someone who could use a card, as do many other club alumni.”
It’s commonplace for Bratvold’s former students to drop by her classroom during their recess to make cards and help her first-graders with the task. “I like showing kids how to draw and make things in the card,” says Elijah Anderson, 12, a sixth-grader at Evansville Public School.
To cover the cost of postage and supplies, Bratvold uses donations from people who appreciate the children’s heartfelt masterpieces—sometimes from card recipients wanting to spread a little sunshine themselves.
It’s apparently a good investment.
Kelsey Langager, 27, a member of the original Kindness Club, today volunteers frequently for the United Way in Alexandria, Minn., where she works as a graphic designer. “It created an awareness of opportunities to give,” Langager says of her fourth-grade experience.
Jill Lundeen, 21, credits her participation in the 2001 Kindness Club for teaching her about the true measure of success. “Not only did it help me develop my handwriting and neatness skills,” says Lundeen, a junior at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, “it also amplified [my] character-building.”
Such testimonials endear Bratvold to Evansville residents such as Diane Anderson, 62, whose daughter and granddaughter both were students in her class. “Evansville is truly blessed,” she says, “to have someone like her teaching our children.”