It might be the flash of color spinning in the sunlight, suspended from a branch that catches the eye. It might be the muted tinkle of a bell, tickled by a breeze that causes the head to turn and seek the source.
As of Tuesday, January 8, there are more than a thousand chances that Newtown and Sandy Hook residents will be summoned to answer the call of Ben’s Bells.
Tucson, Ariz.-based Ben’s Bells is the kindness project of Jeannette Maté, begun ten years ago as a way for her to return the many kindnesses bestowed on her as she grieved the loss of her 3-year-old son, Ben, who died of Croup virus. Ms Maté, along with several volunteers from Arizona and Newtown, was at the dining room table of The Dana-Holcombe House on Monday afternoon, stringing together the bell creations, came to Newtown at the invitation of local people familiar with the program.
Ben’s Bells consist of four or five handmade ceramic pieces in a variety of simple designs — flowers, balls, discs — that are strung in a line ending with a small copper cow bell.
Jenny Avari, a Middle Gate School PTA member, had contacted Ben’s Bells last year to have a kindred program, Kind Coins, brought to the school. The sharing project was very popular. After the December 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Ms Avari reached out to see if Ben’s Bells could bring some measure of comfort to the community.
The bells are hung inconspicuously about a community in need of kindness, Ms Maté said on January 7, and not always just in communities that have suffered great tragedy, like Newtown. They are meant to be discovered and brought home, or passed on, to bring a bit of brightness to a dark place. They are intended, said Ms Maté, “to be a happy surprise.”
A tag attached to each Newtown bell explains that the bell “symbolizes our connection as a community and the power we each have to change the world by committing to kindness, one interaction at a time. We surround all of those who were affected by the events of Dec. 14 with love and kindness.” The flip side of the tag notes, “You have found a Ben’s Bell. Take it home, hang it and remember to spread kindness throughout our world.”
Rob Sibley, Newtown’s Deputy Director for Land Use, a member of Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue Company, and the father of three children who attend Sandy Hook School, also found out about Ben’s Bells through a longtime friend.
“After the incident at Sandy Hook, a lot of our friends reached out to us, including my friend Jenny Corillo, who now lives in Tucson. She had been involved with making Ben’s Bells for three years, and said there were so many people there who wanted to help Newtown. She said that Ben’s Bells would just show up quietly and do this project quietly. I thought, our town can use something like Ben’s Bells,” said Mr Sibley.
One of the town officials who met with former congresswoman and shooting victim Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, of Arizona, when they visited Newtown on January 4, Mr Sibley mentioned the Ben’s Bells program to Ms Giffords.
“She was so impressed that Tucson was sending this project to Newtown. It’s a way of reaching out across the nation,” Mr Sibley said. He feels that this kindness project exemplifies the Sandy Hook School motto: “Work hard, be kind, have fun.”
He is only peripherally involved with bringing Ben’s Bells to Newtown, he said.
“I just kind of ‘married’ everybody to get it here,” he said. He also took some time on Sunday, January 6, though, to show the Arizona volunteers around town, and to help them locate the hidden spaces where he hopes that in the next few days and weeks, someone might hear the voice of one of Ben’s Bells.
A Reminder To Be Kind
After her son’s death, said Ms Maté, “We were surrounded by kindness, and I found that even simple gestures were like hand holds for me. It was a big deal, because I was hurting.”
Even now, she is uncertain how the idea for Ben’s Bells came to her. At the time, she did not consider herself to be an artist.
“I wanted to do something very accessible to people and something that a lot of people can take part in,” she said. From making the bells with a few friends in her garage, the program has expanded to two studios in Tucson, where individuals and groups come to make Ben’s Bells.
“It has been great, for my own grief,” Ms Maté said. “We hung 400 Ben’s Bells on the first anniversary of his death, all around Tucson. We found that it does something for the people who find them.
“We have hung [Ben’s Bells] regularly since that first year, not just in response to a tragedy. It’s really just a reminder to be kind,” she said. Groups around the country quickly turned to Ben’s Bells “in a big way,” after the Giffords shooting, she said.
The message is intentional kindness, she stressed, and sharing. By the time a single bell is completed, as many as ten people may have worked on it, from forming the ceramic pieces, to glazing, to firing the pieces in a kiln. Others, such as the volunteers found at The Dana-Holcombe House on January 7, have strung the pieces together or tied on the small bell. Still other volunteers may have bagged the bells for distribution.
“If we can commit to [kindness], we can get better at it. When you do an act of kindness, you really put yourself out there,” Ms Maté said.
Since the December 14 shooting in Sandy Hook, she said, people have poured into the Tucson studios to create the ceramic pieces for the bells. The Tucson community wanted to be in Newtown, and with the positive response from Newtown, she decided to bring the parts to create more than 1,000 Ben’s Bells to Connecticut.
On Tuesday morning, the teams of Newtown and Arizona volunteers planned to meet at Dickinson Park and spread out from there to place the bells in public places townwide.
“This is kindness, and hope,” said Mr Sibley “We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to heal. We have to be able to accept the caring thoughts and prayers of others. Whether it is a chime in the wind or the thought of the actual hands of the people who made one of Ben’s Bells,” he said, “that’s what I’ll take away, should I be taking a walk one day and find one.”