It was a bluebird day: clear skies, faint hint of fading clouds, brilliant sun. Green blanketed fields, gardens and any spare ground thanks to the recent rain. You could say it was just another beautiful day in Durham, California at Ponderosa Elementary, the new site for the hundreds of students who lost their school – and many their homes – in the Paradise Camp Fire last November. And it was – but side-by-side with the ordinary was the extraordinary.
After eight days putting together hundreds of Peace Kits with almost 1600 Orinda elementary school students, we were finally delivering the overflowing totes to the kids and teachers who needed them the most. For the next few hours, Mindful Littles facilitators, eighth-grade youth leaders and four amazing Orinda fifth grade students led mindfulness and movement sessions for every class in the school.
Looking around at 43 small, upturned faces, my breath caught in my chest. My assignment was to talk about the gratitude journal in their totes, to encourage them to write or draw in them every day. Research shows spending a few minutes a day with gratitude makes us happier and more resilient, which should make talking about gratitude a no-brainer, right?
Yes and no. This was my first time leading a gratitude session and even though I’m all grown up, I was pretty nervous – thrilled, but nervous. What if I didn’t connect with the kids in a helpful, heartfelt way? When your audience is a classroom of kindergartners who have so recently lost their homes, their school, their most treasured belongings – a beloved toy, a special drawing, a favorite sweatshirt – and even their pets in such a traumatic way, it’s hard to imagine they’re ready to embrace gratitude.
And yet, these littles, clutching their totes, jostling each other gently on the carpet, knew all about gratitude – even if they weren’t sure what the word meant, exactly.
Kids are a discerning bunch who usually prefer entertainment over information, so I took a deep breath and started out with a fun exercise about knuckles. I asked one of our fifth-grade volunteers to pick up a pencil without bending her fingers. The kids laughed as she held her hand out stiffly, unable to grasp it. Then I asked her to pick it up like she normally would, which was, of course, easy. We then said “thank you” to our knuckles, a body part we don’t usually think about, for helping our fingers bend and grasp so we can pick up and hold on to different objects.
“Who knows what it means to be grateful?” I asked the kids after they’d settled down again.
I looked around the room at the quiet, expectant faces. Clearly, I was going to have to find a different way to connect. I squeezed myself into a small blue plastic chair and leaned in.
“Okay…who knows what it means to be thankful for something?”
A few hands went up.
“It means you’re glad about something,” said one little boy with a crew cut.
“Thankful is when someone does something for you that you like,” said a girl in a pink puppy t-shirt.
“Yes, wonderful, that’s right,” I said. “To be grateful is the same idea as being thankful. Does anyone want to share something they’re grateful or thankful for?”
Little hands shot up across the room. In the midst of so much loss and trauma and ongoing anxiety, these kids had so much they were grateful for: their grandparents for letting them stay with them after their house burned down; their new pet kitten; their families, the sunny day and the breathing buddies in their Peace Kits. Spiderman, unicorns and ice cream made the list, as did we, Mindful Littles, for coming to spend time with them.
Feeling held by those moments of shared gratitude was an amazing, powerful experience. Yes, we were there to teach these beautiful kids that their hearts have the ability to soothe not only their own hurts, but those of the friends and family around them, too. What I didn’t realize was how much my own heart would soften and swell from the kids’ response to our time together. We all became part of a shared energy of joy and loss, resilience and understanding.
Taking time to really understand what someone needs and working towards meeting that need is what sparks the connections among all of us. When we help others, we often think of ourselves as the givers and the people we help as the receivers. The incredible truth is, we’re all givers and receivers when we tend to each other and let others help us. What I felt sitting in the midst of 43 kindergartners and their gratitude was nothing short of a mutual love exchange. I’d come into that classroom ready to give but I left filled to overflowing, my own inner light shining brightly.
And I can’t wait to do it all again.
Want to feel the joy? Take a look at this Day of Peace video created by our youth leaders from the Orinda Unified School District.