In the wake of a senseless atrocity that shook the nation, one Newtown, Conn., family founded a charity with the simple goal of teaching kids to be kind -- and free lemonade is helping to spread the message.
After their 6-year-old daughter lost her best friend, Charlotte Bacon, in the Sandy Hook school shooting, Aaron and Christiann Carlson were determined to turn tragedy into a teachable moment. The result was the Newtown Kindness Organization, which exists to encourage compassion and random acts of kindness.
“We are not exclusively a Newtown recovery program.” Aaron Carlson told FoxNews.com. “We are trying to reach kids everywhere.”
The organization’s first event was the Charlotte Bacon Act of Kindness Awards, a ceremony that recognized children for acts of goodwill that range from volunteering at a hospital to leading a kindergarten class through a lesson on kindness. But what the group has become best known for is its Charlotte’s Lemonade Stand program, which gives away lemonade stand kits -- complete with jugs, pitchers, lemonade mix, sugar and “act of kindness cards.” Kids who apply for the kits are encouraged to give away their lemonade for free, and to hand out a card that encourages the thirsty customer to perform a random act of kindness.
The Carlsons hope it is a fitting tribute to Charlotte and the 19 first-grade classmates killed along with six educators at the school on Dec. 14, 2012, when a troubled 20-year-old named Adam Lanza stormed in and opened fire. He killed himself at the scene after perpetrating the second deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
Carlson says he and his wife were inspired by all the outside efforts to assist and comfort Newtown residents in the wake of the horrific attack. His organization began as a Facebook page for the Kindness Awards, but when he received interest from all over the country, the scope of his mission grew.
The now-annual awards ceremony, which Newtown Kindness hosted again this year on Charlotte Bacon’s birthday, is the organization’s flagship. Winners from across the country are flown into Connecticut and awarded donations to the charity of their choice for their efforts in creating kinder communities.
“Recognizing kids definitely creates a ripple effect,” Carlson said. “We don’t want to just preach kindness. We want the kids to get involved.”
Since the first awards ceremony in February 2013, the organization’s funding and participation have snowballed. Carlson said the organization has nearly 200 volunteers and sponsors, including the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team, Hershey’s, the Los Angeles Kings hockey team and UPS.
“We started this thing in reaction to this unbearable tragedy that happened in our backyard," Carlson said. "We didn’t expect thousands of participants right away, but now that we have people’s attention, we want to foster kindness in children around the world, through organized acts of kindness and in the educational world.”
Other Newtown Kindness programs include Charlottes Litter, a program dedicated to breeding therapy dogs and getting them to children who lost friends or family in the Sandy Hook shootings; another is the Kindness Bucket Program, which distributes an empty bucket and three children’s books authored by Newtown schoolteacher Carol McCloud that encourage recipients to “fill their bucket” with acts of kindness.
Newtown Kindness has given out dozens of the lemonade stand kits and will continue to do so throughout the summer. The intended message – that kindness for its own sake is constructive and rewarding – has resonated among young participants.
“I held a free lemonade stand with some friends outside of a school in my community when kids were leaving camp for the day,” said Kendra Dascano, a 14-year-old from Danbury, Conn. “Being kind isn't complicated. It can be as simple as a smile or a free glass of lemonade. Many people have asked me why I would give out free lemonade -- what's the point? I'm not making any money. My answer is because it is a nice thing to do.”
Matt Atignani, a 9-year-old from Sandy Hook who also ran a free lemonade stand, reflected on the experience as an appreciation for our power to create positive change.
“I enjoyed doing this very much,” he told FoxNews.com. “If everyone did just one nice thing for someone else every day, the world would be a much happier place.”