Chimes of Change

Jeannette Maré,
founder of Ben’s Bells Project, is helping to spread the word that acts of kindness can change the world. Photo by Thomas Veneklasen.

Chimes of Change

IT IS A LOT OF PRESSURE BEING THE “KINDNESS LADY,” says Jeannette Maré, founder of the Ben’s Bells Project. “When I’m feeling stressed, I know how to employ techniques like breathing, walking away and assuming someone’s good intentions as part of a skill set you can learn in order to spread kindness,” she comments.

Ben’s Bells is in its 12th year of inspiring, educating, motivating and empowering people toward intentional acts of benevolence, having hung 41,000 Bells in Tucson throughout the years. Executive Director Maré (pronounced ma-ray) recalls the first distribution of Ben’s Bells on March 29, 2003, the one-year anniversary of her son Ben’s death. With the help of friends and family, 400 ceramic wind chimes were crafted and distributed around Tucson. Left in parks and other public places, each bell had a tag saying, “You’ve found a Ben’s Bell. Take it home and remember to spread kindness to others.”

“Ben died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 2 1/2, thrusting our family into an intense grieving experience,” Maré says. “Complete strangers, friends and family offered kindness that helped us cope with our grief.”

During their greatest time of heartache, “The smallest gesture felt like a hand hold,” says Maré.” Even Ben’s dad Dean and their son Matthew were motivated to keep going because of the compassion of others.

When Ben died people did not know how to react, she says. Often during personal tragedy people assume the best thing to do is stay away. “I found I wanted to tell people that if they knew how powerful kindness can be, they would want to do it more,” Maré says.

To honor Ben, Jeannette created the six- part ceramic wind chime, made up of the iconic flower centerpiece (stamped with a bb), a metallic bell, three assorted beads, and leather cords that tie it all together. This represents the work of at least 10 volunteers who form the pieces in clay and then paint, fire and assemble it before distributing 200 to 300 a month in Tucson.

Although you may not have seen a Ben’s Bell up close, surely you have seen the green “Be Kind” flower logo all over town. Stickers on cars, in business windows, and even 10 x 10 foot murals installed at 50 of the K-12 Kind Campus Schools in Tucson endorse and encourage the sentiment. You also can purchase handmade and hand-selected related merchandise at the website or the retail store located at 40 W. Broadway Blvd. Anyone can contribute to the program via donations or by volunteering to make Ben’s Bells.

There is more to the project than just a slogan, however. While working as a teacher of linguistics in American Sign Language in the College of Education at the University of Arizona, she developed “Kindness Education,” an academic/scientific approach to promoting and teaching at schools and businesses nationwide. The company began to grow in an organic way, so Maré followed the energy in a new direction. For roughly six years she worked at UA full-time, but as the demand for more Ben’s Bells programming grew, she resigned to devote herself to what would become her life’s calling.
The organization includes 18 staff, 14 board members, and two open studios in Tucson, one downtown and another near the UA Main Gate. Programs are in place at more than 300 schools across the country. Ben’s Bells also has four co-ops in Boise, Idaho, Champagne, Illinois, Greensboro, North Carolina, and Phoenix, Arizona. Local growth is demonstrated with 24,000 volunteers and new educational opportunities starting at the downtown studio in Spring 2015.

Following through with family plans, 10 years ago the Marés adopted two girls from Russia — Leeza 8, and Nika 4.
“I had to learn to be gentle with myself as I navigated my new life without Ben and with the addition of our daughters,” she says. “It was incredibly intense, and the Ben’s Bells mission helped me to incorporate the practice of kindness.”

What many people do not know about Maré, an immigrant from South Africa who came to Tucson when she was nine because her father got a job as a professor at UA, is that she is tremendously athletic, loves extreme sports and is exceedingly competitive.

A true Wildcat and sports enthusiast, she says swimming is her number one sport, but also loves football and basketball. As a competitive athlete herself, personal fitness includes swimming, running, cycling and yoga five times a week, but interest in extreme sports has driven her to more challenging pursuits such as flying with the Thunderbirds in an F-16, skydiving and white-water rafting.
“Ben is part of this work for me every day,” she concludes. “I turn to him. I ask for his help. He used to be my little guy, but now he’s so much bigger than I, and I depend on him.” — Laurie Laine