On a warm day in June, the volunteers gathered in a school cafeteria just off Interstate 215 to help the growing list of families that had signed up for assistance.
“I need a blue backpack – anyone seen that?” asked volunteer Megan Reyes. For the fourth year in a row, the group known as Random Act of Kindness, or RAOK, held its school drive inside the high school gymnasium. Table after table was filled with enough pencils, pens, and backpacks to help 2500 families – some low income, but many families homeless and living in shelters or in cars on the street.
Volunteer Kat Viernes-Lacy explained the group would be handing out backpacks filled with items students would need on the first day of school, and perhaps also a new pair of socks. “The response is always big smiles and very grateful parents,” she said. Kat is a participant herself, as well as a volunteer. Nearly all of the back-to-school supplies are donations from caring individuals and southern California businesses. Those on the receiving end simply had to send an email via Facebook to the growing group of caring volunteers who belong to Random Act of Kindness.
Outside the gym, families began lining up long before the doors were scheduled to open. Katarina Gomez, a mother of three, was among the first in line, eager to accept anything that would make the first day of school positive for her children. Katarina said, “We are very grateful for the work of RAOK and what this means to families in the Inland Empire, because it’s hard to make ends meet every month.”
A short time later, Katarina and hundreds of others went shopping to select backpacks, shoes, socks, and school supplies for their children, and in some cases, grandchildren. Word of the back-to-school effort quickly spread through volunteers like Jane Rodriguez and Megan Reyes, who operate on the premise that “being kind is contagious,” an example of the American Spirit in action.
Megan said, “We really feel for the children in the communities because many parents have been laid off or are on disability, and we just really don’t want these kids going to school without the essential items they need. We want them to feel good about the first day of school.” Megan went on to describe being raised by a single mother, and that oftentimes she and her siblings went without things.
The giveaway started four years ago with John Gordon, a father who decided he wanted to make sure as many children as possible had backpacks. The first year, John and his team gave away 800 backpacks. That number has since tripled and also includes 1600 pairs of shoes and socks.
The man behind the wildly successful social media effort appears rather intimidating, but don’t be fooled by the tattooed, bald-biker appearance of John Gordon. He is a gentle soul, committed to making the world a better place for others.
John said, “Initially, it started out as a Facebook group where people could go to find a good news feed, but now it’s turned into a club and a family. It’s pretty neat.” In fact, Random Act of Kindness now has more than 43,000 members. Helping the homeless and wounded military veterans, and giving money to families battling cancer, are some of the charitable efforts found on the group’s social media page.
“The feeling is rewarding. I was that kid at one time that needed the extra boost, and it’s just nice to pass it along, so the reward for doing something nice far exceeds anything else. Once you feel it a couple times it’s an addiction, and better than anything I’ve ever experienced in life, I’ll tell you that,” said John.
In a tearful twist, it was John’s Facebook page that led him to a sister he’d never met. One post led to another in his search for family separated decades earlier, and it was their big hearts helping others that reunited John with his sister, Audra, and two other siblings. John reports, “My entire life, I’d never met my father and my siblings. We’d searched for each other with detectives before, with no success.”
Random Act of Kindness has a unique partnership with school districts to provide clothes and school supplies for homeless and foster students. In Riverside alone, the homeless student population is close to 3,000, the majority of whom depend on John’s generosity each year for needed supplies.
The objective of Random Act of Kindness is simply to share, inspire, and spread kindness. That’s the American Spirit.
Mary Parks is creator and host of the weekly PBS television series American Spirit with Mary Parks. She is also an award-winning journalist.