Volunteers help city try to heal, one bell at a time

Volunteers help city try to heal, one bell at a time

Project draws more than 500 Samaritans to 'spread good will'


A simple concept. An expression of good will and affection.

Two syllables, eight letters that hundreds of Tucsonans believe possess the power to heal the heart of this city.

More than 500 people braved temperatures in the 40s during the hour before dawn Thursday as they waited outside the studio of the Ben's Bells Project near the University of Arizona's Main Gate. Many - perhaps most - sought to channel their grief over the shooting Saturday in Tucson that left six dead and 13 wounded, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Those gathered were eager to show support for the community, volunteering to hang 1,400 handmade ceramic "kindness" bells throughout Tucson for strangers to find. It was a random act of kindness that volunteers with the Ben's Bells Project have practiced twice a year in Tucson since 2003.

"The way Ben's Bells was born, it was something to do and sit down and talk and be cathartic," said founder Jeannette Maré.

The nonprofit was started a year after her 2-year-old son, Ben Maré Packard, died of croup in March 2002.

"The amazing thing is people are using it in that way," she said. "Parents are bringing their kids down here, people are coming in. It's something people can put their hands on and feel they are doing something for their community and it makes sense.

"Our community needs kindness now in a very, very big way."

Volunteers on Thursday morning each received a handful of bells and a map showing where in town they would hang them.

Shelley Shanti brought her children, Shaddai, 9, and Keshava, 8, to the event.

"We wanted to help remind people to be kind," Shanti said.

Added Shaddai: "I hope they'll remember to be kinder and not do things they shouldn't be doing."

People of all ages and walks of life turned out to volunteer - from businessmen in suits to high school students on their way to class.

Teacher Elizabeth Thies picked up bells that could be distributed by her P.E. class at Basis Tucson charter school.

"I really wanted to have my kids do something positive. Change starts with our youth," Thies said. "When something like this happens, I think the kids feel helpless and this is a way for them to do something positive."

Some in attendance had already experienced the power of Ben's Bells. Becky Farley brought her mother, Shirley Farley.

"I've never distributed bells, but I had a girlfriend who found one when she needed one," Becky Farley said. "This is a chance to give back to the city, to heal the city."

Tori Congdon attended the event with her husband. She had volunteered with Ben's Bells in the past.

"Like a lot of people, my heart hurts and I want to do something constructive," she said. "I think this wonderful project will help people spread good will … and I hope it will heal Tucson. It's such a simple and beautiful act."

The bells may even prove healing to some of the investigators working the case.

Mare and members of the Ben's Bells board of directors took 300 bells to the Safeway shopping center on Tucson's northwest side where the shooting occurred. A portion of the parking lot was still cordoned with crime scene tape when they arrived.

"I asked an FBI guy if he would hang them inside the tape, and he took them back to a trailer setup, and all of the sudden FBI guys came out and started hanging them up in the trees," Mare said. "The sight of these FBI agents kind of swarming out of this van and up to the trees … was amazing to see."

Contact reporter Kimberly Matas at kmatas@azstarnet.com or at 573-4191.

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Ben's Bells promote kindness and community. It was started in 2003 by the family of Ben Maré Packard as a way to honor the 2-year-old who died…

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