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Julia O'Malley: Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.

Julia O'Malley
Kerry BurkhardtCold Bay students took a field trip with Izembek Refuge workers.
Andrew Moore is the principal of Lyons Elementary.

A reader named Holli Hoskins wrote this week from Lyons, Colo. You might remember Lyons from the news. It was devastated by a flash flood in September. All the infrastructure -- sewer lines, gas lines, roads -- were decimated. Many residents were made homeless. They are still trying to rebuild, she wrote, but it is a slow, discouraging process. Recently, she had one of her lowest days.

Then she got an email from Alaska.

Hoskins taught in rural Alaska schools before moving back to Colorado. The email was from was her friend, Kerry Burkhardt, who is now the teacher and principal at the Cold Bay School. Last year, Hoskins' class and Burkhardt's class exchanged letters. Hoskins sent treats and holiday decorations she knew would be hard to get in the village.

Cold Bay is on the Alaska Peninsula right at the start of the Aleutian chain. Population: about 60. Many people work jobs related to a big World War II-era airstrip, where large planes on international flights sometimes stop to refuel. The school has seven students. In her email to Hoskins, Burkhardt said she had good news. Her class had raised some money: $764.25, to be exact. They wanted to donate it to a school in Lyons. Hoskins felt tears come as she did the math. That was more than $100 per student at the Cold Bay school. It was a reminder that a small group can do big things.

"Hope is a game changer," she wrote. "I knew through their kindness that my town of Lyons would heal."

Hoskins teaches at a school in Boulder, but she promised to find out where in Lyons the Cold Bay students could send their check. The Lyons elementary school had been closed for months.

When I reached Burkhardt in Cold Bay, she told me her class is made up of one fourth-grader, three fifth-graders, two sixth-graders and a seventh-grader. (They also have a pre-school student who isn't part of the official student count.) They decided this fall they wanted to raise money for a cause, she said. They chose Lyons in part because of their connection to Hoskins, and because they saw online that the school had many needs.

"We have been working hard on building compassion and empathy," she said. "Since it's such a isolated spot, anything that opens us up to others and others' needs is a thing too."

To raise their funds, they organized a bake sale.

"We called anyone that would be willing to bake in our tiny community," she said.

On a Friday, for three hours, the kids sold what the bakers made in the school gym.

"There are so few people here that people that brought things ended up buying things," she said. "People who actually don't have a lot, they pitched in and said it's going to a good cause."

PenAir had passengers who were stuck at the airport that day. The airline gave them a lift to the sale.

"Those guys came in and bought a brownie or whatever," she said.

And somehow they raised over $700, more than they expected. Burkhardt was so proud of the students and the people in town that she tacked up the total up in the post office and at the store, where all important news gets posted in Cold Bay. Then she wrote Hoskins. Hoskins replied with the name of the principal of Lyons Elementary: Andrew Moore.

Burkardt put Moore's name into Google. A photo appeared. Moore was young man with a mustache. In the photo, he wore a Lyons Elementary sweatshirt and held a sign. The sign's message seemed almost like it was meant for Burkardt and her students even though they were strangers, thousands of miles away, she said.

"Be kind. Be kind. Be kind," it read.

The next day,Burkardt and her students practiced what they were going to say and then they put the phone on speaker and sat it on a chair in the middle of the classroom. They crowded around. Burkardt dialed Moore's number. He answered. They all spoke in unison. They told him they were from a school in Alaska. They had raised money and they wanted to give it to Lyons Elementary.

"All he said was, 'Wow,' " Burkardt said.

He talked with the Cold Bay students for a few minutes, thanked them and then asked for their return address, so his students could send thank-yous.

Afterward, she said one student was worried that Moore wasn't excited enough. You can't have expectations about how a gift is received, Burkhardt told her class. Another student wondered what the Lyons children would send in return. Burkhardt reminded them: Giving isn't about getting something.

"I got to tell them: It's just for the delight of being able to give," she said.

When I called Moore at Lyons Elementary on Wednesday, he got on his computer and looked up Cold Bay. He hadn't had time before.

"Wow," he said quietly.

"This whole experience has been humbling."

His school has received care packages from students in Japan and Newtown, Conn. The Lyons Elementary building was not damaged, he said, but the town was nearly destroyed and that disrupted the lives of all of the school's 350 children. They'd been spread out to schools in other towns all fall and only returned to Lyons Elementary a few weeks ago.

Many of them lost homes and belongings. It is getting cold now, he said. He was preoccupied Wednesday with making sure they all had winter clothes. I asked him about the sign he was holding in the photo on the school website. It is part of a project called "One Million Faces," where people are photographed holding a message they'd like to send to the world, he said. His students were going to participate. Some of the Cold Bay money would go to support that. It was a way to help them recover from what happened, he said. He chose that message because so many people had reached out to Lyons after the flood. That changed the way he looked at the world, he said.

"Kindness is a choice, you know?" he said. "Every moment, you have a choice."

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.

 


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