Aurora theater shooting inspires local first-graders to launch Jar of Kindness project

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How do you help young children cope with a terrible tragedy?

A first-grade teacher in Aurora has come up with a way. Every day after recess, the kids in Megan Anderson's class at Peoria Elementary sit on the classroom's alphabet rug and talk about the kind things they've done that day. Each kind act is worth one "warm fuzzy" for the class's Jar of Kindness. "We do this for the people that got hurt in the movie theater," first-grader Prisila says.

She's referring to the tragic July 20 shooting at the Century 16 theater in Aurora, when a gunman opened fire at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, killing twelve people and injuring seventy more. The youngest deceased victim, Veronica Moser-Sullivan, was just six years old.

The children in Anderson's class came to school in the fall having heard about the shooting -- and wanting to talk about it. Some specifically mentioned Moser-Sullivan. "One boy said, 'The little girl, she liked to swim. She was so nice,'" Anderson recalls. "All the other kids kept saying, 'These people were so nice.'"

Anderson searched for a way to turn sorrow into hope. She says she thought, "I know the kids are going to be scared and I know I'm feeling that way, so what's something positive we can focus on amidst all the horrible things that are happening? I wanted them to be able to see what putting goodness out in the world can do for somebody."

Hence, the Jar of Kindness. She already had a jar from a math estimating game and she came up with the concept of "warm fuzzies" -- pom-pom balls from the craft store -- as a concrete way to represent good deeds. The idea was to fill the jar and then give the warm fuzzies to one of the surviving victims.

On a recent afternoon, the kids sat cross-legged facing Anderson and the half-filled jar. When she asked if anyone had a kind act to share, several hands shot up.

"When my sister's lip was bleeding, I took her to the nurse!" a student named Aubrey said.

"When I didn't want to be the tagger, Edson traded with me!" Julian shared.

Continue for more on theater shooting victims receiving the warm fuzzies.

Other kids talked about inviting lonely friends to play with them at recess and helping a kindergartener who got hurt on the playground. When they were done sharing, Anderson picked one student to receive "three compliments for a friend." The boy stood at the front of the class and chose three classmates, who offered that he was a fast runner, a good reader and a nice friend. The boy said the compliments made him happy. "Pat yourselves on the back," Anderson told the class. "You made a friend feel happy."

Thus far, three Aurora theater shooting victims have visited the class to receive the warm fuzzies, including Carli Richards and her boyfriend Chris. Both were at the theater that night, and Richards was hit with shotgun pellets as they tried to flee the shooter.

Being invited to the school "was really refreshing," Richards says. "It was just an uplifting experience, especially since a lot of bad has come out of the shooting."

In addition to gifting the warm fuzzies, the first-graders in Anderson's class made cards for her and Chris. "Dear Miss Carli," one reads. "You are OK." Another says, "We are sorry that you were in the theatr. We hope that you feel better." Yet another says, "We are happy you are cameg. We are omost to the top" -- presumably of the Jar of Kindness. Even the spelling mistakes are adorable.

Richards keeps the cards, which are decorated with drawings of ice cream cones and smiling stick figures, in a box at her Aurora home. She pulled them out recently after attending a preliminary hearing for accused shooter James Holmes, which included graphic and emotional testimony. The cards made her feel better, she says.

Anderson's class started the project on the very first day of school and the teacher has been amazed at how the kids have embraced it. "The way they're able to focus on being nice helps them deal with what happened in a positive way," she says.

Peoria Elementary principal Lisa Toner agrees. When Anderson came up with the idea, "I thought it was so kind," Toner says. "And I thought it really touched on the kind of emotions and reactions and general feelings that everybody would agree we'd want to enhance in humanity, and that's taking care of others."

More from our Aurora Theater Shooting archive: "Aurora theater shooting victims set up fund to raise money for Sandy Hook victims."

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com

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