Ben Maré Packard lived with gusto during his short time on Earth. The towheaded fireball loved being naked and would ditch his duds at any opportunity. He'd spin like a top, belting in his toddler's voice the song "I'm a Believer" from the Shrek movie soundtrack.
"He was very much a ham. Maybe a little like his mother," Jeannette Maré recalls of her youngest child, who died of croup just before his third birthday and became the inspiration for the Ben's Bells project.
The idea took root shortly after Ben's 2002 death, as she and her family reeled from grief that was "mind-blowing in its intensity."
"You can't fathom it," Maré, 44, says of the pain. "It's been nine years and there are moments when I still feel like I can't do it."
In her darkest days, she says, the tiniest act of kindness - a stranger holding a door open, or letting her merge into traffic - became lifelines reminding her there still was goodness in the world.
That's how kindness became the theme of the Ben's Bell's project, which has spread the sentiment across cities, states and nations.
The bells are handmade and hung at random by hundreds of volunteers - including Ben's big brother Matt, now 14, and Maré's two daughters, Leeza, 15, and Nika, 11, adopted after Ben's death.
Each bell comes with a note attached telling the recipient to take it home and remember to be kind. More than 20,000 bells have been hung to date in Tucson and afar.
Many have gone to tragedy-stricken locales such as New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and Hermosillo, Mexico, after a daycare fire there killed dozens of children in 2009.
Despite the agony of her loss, Maré says it has given her unexpected gifts, such as compassion and reverence for life.
"I've experienced more pain than I ever imagined, but also, far deeper joy and connection."
- Carol Ann Alaimo
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