Nation & World

Commentary: It all starts with 26 acts

Thursday, Mae Suramek grabbed a cup of coffee at Berea Coffee & Tea and left an extra $4 to pay for the next customer's order.

It was another of her random acts of kindness in honor of the 26 adults and children gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14.

"When the shootings in Newtown happened, I was devastated," said Suramek, executive director of the Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center, where my daughter also works. "I have only been at the rape crisis center for six months. I haven't learned how to deal with the trauma."

As the mother of a 5-year-old son in kindergarten, Suramek said she has empathy for the parents of the 20 first-graders who died.

"Then I saw the Ann Curry thing and it resonated with me," she said.

NBC News correspondent Ann Curry, one of a slew of journalists covering the tragedy, had wondered on her blog what she could do in the aftermath of the tragedy to address such recurring national sufferings.

She recalled the smiles she had brought to the faces of mothers in Darfur in 2007 when she simply took Polaroid photos of the mothers and their children, a gift they had never seen before.

"Imagine if everyone could commit to doing one act of kindness for every one of those children killed in Newtown," she tweeted. It was re-tweeted and then upgraded to 26 acts of kindness, for the children and educators killed at the school.

Some suggested the mother of the shooter and the shooter himself be added, bringing the number to 28. The number of acts was left up to each individual, though the movement has became known as the 26 Acts of Kindness on Facebook and trending on Twitter with hashtag #26acts.

As part of their kindness, Suramek and her husband used Christmas money to help three families. They also bought a gas card for their favorite server at a local Mexican restaurant so he could visit his family in Florida. They bought a box of chocolate for the third-shift security crew at Berea College and lunch for a co-worker. And then on Thursday she paid for a stranger's coffee.

Adam Walker, owner of Berea Coffee & Tea, said that act of kindness generated a long succession of kindnesses, with customer after customer paying for others.

"It lasted for about two hours," Walker said.

Suramek isn't the only one being kind. Local attorney Mark Rucker has been committed to performing acts of kindness on Wednesdays for a while now and even has set up a Facebook page encouraging others to do the same.

After the Newtown shooting, Rucker said a friend suggested they perform kindnesses for those killed so Rucker then created "26 Days of Random Acts of Kindness in Memory of the Sandy Hook Elementary School Victims," a Google calendar that lists each school victim on a separate day.

"I skipped Christmas Eve and Christmas, and New Year's Eve and New Year's Day," he said, adding that attention would be directed toward family and fun on those days. "I wanted each victim to have one day in which people focus on them."

Why'd he do it?

"I have been very fortunate," Rucker said. "I have two wonderful parents and I was brought up with certain ideals about how to treat people. My feeling is you need to be serving others instead of serving yourself."

Being kind to people encourages them to be kind to others, he said. "Once you do that you see others take the initiative to pay it forward."

Father Jim Sichko of St. Mark Roman Catholic Church in Richmond has been doing random acts of kindness for years. The tragedy in Newtown, though, led him to increase his efforts.

He bought 26 scratch-off lottery tickets and placed them in different locations throughout Fayette Mall, he said. He has left encouraging thoughts on the windshields of cars. And he spent time with a nursing home resident he didn't know.

"It is sad in this day and age that it takes a tragedy to awaken this," Sichko said. "I was brought up that this is what you do any time. That is what we need to be asking ourselves: why aren't we doing this regularly?"

The problem is not that we aren't a generous people, he said.

"It is that whole receiving thing," Sichko said. "We are not open to receiving and sometimes we're so suspicious."

Suramek agrees.

"People freak out when you try to take their grocery carts back for them," she said.

Acts of kindness can be uncomfortable for the giver and the receiver, Sichko said.

"I say, in order to love and in order to reach out, we have to risk. We have to get out of our comfort zones. It is not easy, but once you do, it frees you up."

Suramek plans to be more observant of those around her and to allow herself to be led when God presents her with an opportunity. That is what Sichko calls allowing the divine to overpower our human frailties.

When we master that, random acts of kindness will become more routine.

Merlene Davis: Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: